For Reasons That Make No Sense At All, an Appeals Court Has Upheld NYC’s Ban on Worship Services in Public Schools

In 1994, the Bronx Household of Faith (an urban church) filled out an application to rent out space at a New York City public school for its Sunday morning services. Their application was rejected because of something now known as “Standard Operating Procedure” (SOP) §5.11.

No outside organization or group may be allowed to conduct religious services or religious instruction on school premises after school. However, the use of school premises by outside organizations or groups after school for the purpose of discussing religious material or material which contains a religious viewpoint or for distributing such material is permissible.

So it was okay for groups to rent out the space to teach kids about religion… but if it became too church-like, that was a no-no? (What was the difference? Saying “Amen”?)

At one point, in 2001, the Supreme Court ruled in Good News Club v. Milford Central School that it was unconstitutional for a public school district to exclude groups like the GNC, which taught religion to children through memorizing Bible verses and singing songs.

With that decision in their back pocket, the Bronx Household of Faith applied once again to rent out space at a public school… and, once again, they were rejected. The reason? The Good News Club wasn’t “worship.” The BHF was. The law still wouldn’t allow for it.

The minor distinction between Christian groups meeting and Christian churches worshiping aside, the judges had reasons for not wanting to allow worship services in the space:

The churches “tend to dominate the schools on the day they use them,” leading to a confusing situation for children who might believe the school was somehow a church, they added.

In addition, the churches were not equally open to every member of the public, the judges wrote. Bronx Household, for example, had acknowledged to the court that it excluded people from full participation in its services if they were not baptized, were excommunicated, or if they “advocate the Islamic religion,” the opinion said.

If they’re paying fair rental price for the space, I have a hard time understanding why a child’s confusion about what’s going on matters. It’s outside of the school day. Many public schools in other states allow churches to rent out space on weekends without problem; why is it any different in New York? There could be an argument made about how the churches aren’t open to the general public, but that explanation has hardly been the focal point of this case.

Which brings us to yesterday.

In a confusing ruling that mostly likely won’t be the end of this already-multi-decade-long saga, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that New York City could still prevent religious groups from renting out space in public schools for worship services.

See if this makes any sense to you:

Religions that conduct religious worship services are not excluded by Reg. I.Q. [the Department of Education’s policy] from the use of school facilities. They may use the facilities to teach religion, read from and discuss the Bible, advocate their religious views, sing hymns, say prayers, and do all things that must be permitted under the rule of Good News Club. Such religions, it is true, may not use the school facilities for the conduct of religious worship services.

You can discuss the Bible, sing, pray, and advocate your religious views… but no religious worship!

While you’re at it, feel free to add, subtract, divide, and multiply, but don’t you dare do any of your math homework…

To my surprise, the New York Civil Liberties Union applauded the decision. Here’s NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman:

This case is about a group of about 160 religious congregations that were dominating public schools across New York City Sunday after Sunday, year after year. When a school is converted to a church in this way, it sends a powerful message to students and the community at large that the government favors that particular church. Children who are not part of the favored congregation feel diminished, and both the church members and the community stop seeing the distinction between the church and the school. That hurts kids, that hurts people who aren’t members of the church, and that hurts one of our nation’s most cherished principles.

Once again, if the rental application process is open to everyone and the groups are paying the fair rental price, the “message” it sends seems irrelevant to me. Who in their right mind thinks a public school magically prefers Christians just because a church rents out the space on a Sunday morning? Who doesn’t see the “distinction between the church and the school”?

As Judge John M. Walker, Jr. wrote in his dissent:

A regulation that bans worship services but not worship in any of its manifestations is thus not sufficiently tailored to accomplish the interest that the School Board has advanced, namely, avoiding the risk of being perceived as establishing religion.

That makes perfect sense to me. If you’re afraid that someone will perceive the school as a church, then allowing groups to rent out the space that promote particular beliefs, sing, pray, and read Bible verses seems extremely hypocritical.

The distinction between allowing those things and allowing “worship” is so razor-thin that I can’t understand why anyone would raise a fuss about it. Walker also had this passage in his dissent that requires attention:

Of the fifty largest school districts in the United States, New York City alone entirely excludes religious worship from its facilities…. It is striking that none of these other school districts appear to have the slightest concern about violating the Establishment Clause, nor have any of their community use policies been found to violate the Clause.”

I also agree with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said (before the ruling had come out):

“I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community nonprofit deserves access. You know, they have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent. But I think they deserve access. They play a very, very important role in terms of providing social services and other important community services, and I think they deserve that right.”

While a lot of commenters on various websites are hailing this ruling as a victory for church-state separation, they’re ignorant of what’s happening here. Religious groups are still welcome in the public schools — as they’ve been for a long time. The only groups that are excluded are churches that want to hold worship services. Because that somehow crosses the line.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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