The End of Expressing Faith in Public Spaces?

As a young college student, one of the appeals of participating in an evangelical group was the fairly humble settings that often accompanied the singing and praying and fellowshipping (it’s one of those terms I heard first among evangelicals, and I think it’s another way of saying “socializing.”). For those us that grew up Christian, I think most of us are familiar with the interiors of traditional church structures, some have steeples, stained glass, pews, some are even shaped like a cross.  

In traditional church structures you’re invited into a space that is set apart, another word for “holy.” But for many Christians, such holy spaces are not feasible or even desirable. The church is not a building, it’s a people. The location, the space is of little relevance.


Some evangelical Christians in college (and perhaps other groups too) embody this by setting up temporary gathering spaces in places like classrooms and auditoriums at public and private universities. For someone like me, somewhat unaware of what evangelical Christianity was enjoyed this experience because it seemed authentic. “Authentic” in this case meant: God is wherever believers gather to pray and worship. If you’ve never seen this, imagine a bunch of college kids singing a campfire song led by a few students with acoustic guitars, maybe a keyboard and even a small drum kit all in a classroom. Usually, out of efficiency, the chalkboard or screen area is the temporary “front” of the space and all seats are positioned to face that and the music leaders are next to it. It’s a makeshift church, and for the people participating, God is present in that hour.

Environments like these are sites described in a growing body of literature in sociology termed “everyday religion.” Rather than thinking about religion in the traditional congregational setting, some scholars are investigating the varied ways that religious groups practice their faith in spaces and in ways that many would not have considered before. Everyday religion includes anything from converting a work cubicle into a worship environment, to creating spaces for Muslim cab drivers to pray while they are on break driving about in cities like New York.


Clearly then everyday religion is not only practiced by evangelical Christians in college. Religious groups, most of whom are Christian also rent spaces that are either empty otherwise (these are sometimes called “store-front” churches) and some utilize space that is used for other purposes at other times in the day and the week. One of the most memorable of these kinds of worship spaces is Redeemer Presbyterian Church which has met in one of the auditorium spaces in Hunter College in Manhattan for a number of years. On a Sunday morning you can see this space packed full of people who might not otherwise have gathered at all since their formative experience of authentic church may in fact have resembled this very experience while they were in college.

It’s therefore not a surprise that there’s a lot of concern among many evangelical Christians and other religious groups in New York City that the very spaces that used to be available for gathering are now shutting them out. Why? It’s not because it’s too expensive, nor is it because it obstructs the main aim of the space. It’s because it violates the separation of church and state. This is the argument (as I understand it) for what’s happening in at least 68 instances. Pastors and other religious leaders of different religious traditions and racial backgrounds have joined together (and risked arrest) to protest this recent change. One minister even went on a hunger strike for 24 days to draw attention to this important matter. This Sunday, February 12, is the reported date in which religious groups will be prohibited from holding services after hours in public schools.

This is obviously of personal interest but it’s also of sociological interest. To be sure, we have lots of church buildings that could welcome a congregation, but for various reasons a lot of religious groups don’t take up the offer to use those spaces or simply can’t afford it. Keep in mind that most of the time it costs very little to be a part of a religious community. You might need to buy a sacred text, but you could always read over someone’s shoulder. And religious leaders are often volunteering their time out of a sense of higher calling. So barring groups from meeting in public spaces like public schools after the school day is over puts these groups in significant distress. And it clearly sends a message, fair or not, that society is not friendly toward their community of faith. You can be sure that this will serve to justify antipathy toward “the structure” or “the secular state” if young people, especially people who are early in their faith formation experience this.

Like a lot of us, I root for the underdog and in many ways religious groups that meet afterhours in public schools are classic underdogs. And it’s my hope that these groups will find resilience to rise above these restrictions and thrive through creative means. But we should also ask ourselves this: what would a religiously tolerant society do for these groups and why is it that this change in policy is occurring now?

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  • Lambcomb

    Where’s the ACLU when you need them? This could only be a violation of C&S if churches are given preferential treatment.

    Funny, it’s never a problem going the other way; the state never seems the have a problem setting up polling places in churches, and in turn forcing all voters in the district to visit.

  • Revruthucc

    My thought is that religious groups should have the same rights to use the space as any other group which would be allowed to rent the space. That’s been pretty clearly established in case law, I think. But if no other groups use the space for free, then either that must change or the religious groups must pay the same rent. That alleviates any conflict with the Establishment clause.

  • Michael

    The Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision linked to in the story suggest that school spaces in question can in fact be used for singing and praying and fellowshipping — just not for “worship services.”

    The narrow exclusion enforced by NYC Board of Education is so strained that even the two judges upholding the exclusion seem to be consciously performing the equivalent of drinking water while standing on their heads (even as their tangled robes thusly obscure their vision) and holding their breath.

    I look forward to hearing the sharp-edged questions offered by justices leaning either direction when/if this is appealed.