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Column: On Keeping Church and Schools Separate (New York Times School Book Blog)

By Udi Ofer

The United States Supreme Court refused in December to intervene in a 16-year legal battle against New York City’s prohibition on the use of schools for religious worship services.

Some 160 religious congregations, almost all Christian denominations, now have until Feb. 12 to stop using schools as houses of worship. They won’t go quietly and have enlisted the help of state and city lawmakers.

On Thursday, the City Council‘s education committee has scheduled a hearing on a resolution to allow religious groups access to schools.

The Department of Education is right to erect a wall between religious worship and our schools. Policymakers should keep that wall strong and vote against any proposal that goes against the separation of church and state.

The right of New Yorkers to express their views, whether religious or not, are fundamental rights that the New York Civil Liberties Union will always fight for. But a balance must be achieved between the right of free speech and the constitution’s prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Students and the public can use schools for religious clubs, prayer, singing of hymns and even Bible study. Religious extracurricular clubs are welcomed in the schools. This will not change. What schools cannot do is cross the line that turns them into houses of worship, becoming indistinguishable from the church.

For more than a decade, certain churches have monopolized school space week after week, advertise the schools as their places of worship, and generally give the appearance — to children and parents in the congregations and in the surrounding communities — that the public school belongs to the church.

They posts signs, distribute fliers and proselytize outside the schools, trying to convince students and community members to attend religious services.

Some pray for the souls of the children who attend the school. Others, like the church at Public School 3 Charrette School in the West Village, pray to “cure” lesbian women and gay men. Some even proclaim their goal of having a church in every public school in the city.

When churches take over a school every Sunday, both the church members and the community members begin to equate the church with the school. Neighborhood children who attend the school begin to view the church as part of their school.

Bronx Household of Faith, a Christian congregation that excludes Muslims from its services and persons who have not been baptized, has held its worship services at P.S. X15 Institute for Environmental Learning for 20 years every Sunday. It is the only place where it holds its worship services. The church and the school have become inseparable.

As the federal appeals court that upheld the city Education Department’s ban explained:

When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity. The church has made the school the place for the performance of its rites, and might well appear to have established itself there. The place has, at least for a time, become the church.

Moreover, not all religions are treated equally. Jews and Muslims generally cannot use school facilities on their days of worship, since schools are largely unavailable on Fridays and Saturdays. Whichever group gets to pray in school every week is likely to be viewed as the “favorite” by the kids and the community. And that’s not good for the kids who have a different religion, or who don’t go to church.

Allowing religious worship services in schools is also not cheap for taxpayers and an already stretched education budget. The Education Department does not charge rent, and churches do not pay for electricity, gas and other utilities. The only charge is the partial cost of custodial work and security. The city’s tight education budget foots the rest of the bill, which raises serious concerns about government subsidy of religion.

Though many people believe it’s simply a matter of churches having “equal access” to the school buildings, the problem is that it gives the appearance of government endorsing religion.

New Yorkers have a right to worship, or not worship, as they choose. But the separation of church and state is a foundation of religious freedom. Allowing the government to permit religious worship services in public schools violates this time-honored principle.

Udi Ofer is the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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