Legislation that would allow religious worship services inside public schools would threaten New Yorkers’ religious freedom, the New York Civil Liberties Union will argue today in testimony before the New York City Council’s Education Committee. During the 2010-11 school year, about 160 religious congregations – almost all Christian churches – held Sunday worship services in New York City schools.

“The NYCLU champions the right of all New Yorkers to worship, or not, as they choose. But turning our public schools into churches every Sunday undermines the core American principle of separation of church and state,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Our public schools serve children of all faiths equally. Converting our schools into churches sends a message to the community – and to children – that the government favors Christian churches. It creates a climate of discrimination, intolerance and animosity that has no place in public schools.”

The City Council is a considering a resolution in support of proposed state legislation that would force school districts to allow religious worship services in public school buildings. The state legislation is an attempt to circumvent a recent ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit that upheld a New York City Department of Education policy prohibiting worship services in public schools. Religious congregations have until February 12th to stop using schools as houses of worship.

The NYCLU maintains that allowing churches to hold worship services in public schools violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion in numerous ways, including:

  • Inviting discrimination. School buildings are not equally available to all faiths. Christian churches that worship on Sunday have greater access to schools than religious groups that worship on other days of the week when schools are not available. The church that gets to pray in school every week is likely to be viewed as the “favorite” by the kids who go to the school and the community at large. It gives kids the impression that one religious group is favored over others and risks creating a climate of intolerance, bigotry and animosity that has no place in our public schools.
  • Subsidizing religion. Churches that use New York City schools for worship services do not pay rent or utility fees when they use school buildings. They pay a nominal fee for janitorial services—an amount far below average fair market rents. This led the federal appeals court to conclude that the city “foots a major portion of the costs of operation of a church.”
  • Converting public school buildings into neighborhood churches. The federal appeals court observed that churches “tend to dominate the schools on the day they use them.” They use the largest rooms, often for the entire day. Church members distribute fliers and post signs outside the buildings. Both congregants, members of the public and the children who attend the school come to identify the schools as churches.

As the federal appeals court that upheld the DOE’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.” (emphasis in original).

“The law already allows religious groups to use public schools for all kinds of extra-curricular activities, including prayer and Bible study,” Lieberman said. “The proposed state legislation goes much further: It essentially requires our schools to subsidize churches and privileges the Christian church over other religions, which erodes everyone’s religious freedom.”

Representatives from a variety of religious and educational backgrounds joined the NYCLU in urging the Council to abandon its resolution. Jay Worona, general counsel to the New York State School Boards Association, will testify that schools districts should continue to have the individual right to determine the appropriate uses of their school facilities by outside groups.

“Even more problematic to our organization, however, is the language in both Senate 6087-A and Assembly 8800-A which would require school districts to permit outside groups from meeting for virtually any purpose,” Worona said. “Although the proposed legislative language is clearly not intended to require school districts throughout the state to permit individuals to secure access to school facilities after school hours for the purpose of promoting hateful, discriminatory messages, that is indeed a very real unintended consequence.”

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior Rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, said that the issue at stake is government sponsorship or the appearance of government sponsorship of religion, and “the encroachment upon that very constitutional principle that is responsible for strengthening and preserving both religion and democracy.”

“The central principle articulated at the founding of America that has preserved most profoundly both democracy and religion has been the First Amendment principle that the state shall not establish a religion or favor one religion over another,” Rabbi Hirsch said. “I want to assure the members of the City Council, to oppose the bill is not anti-religious. To the contrary, the bill’s defeat would be helpful to us in the long run. We are immeasurably strengthened by the government keeping its proper distance.”