Got PR? One-sided news over in op-ed (corrected)

Katherine Stewart is the author of an upcoming book with one of those calm, reasoned, fair-minded titles that have become so common in the American marketplace in the past few decades — “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.”

As you would expect, she is not particularly fond of religious conservatives.

As you would expect, she would be a totally logical person to write an op-ed page piece in the New York Times that, under the headline “Separation of Church and School,” includes some frank information about an interesting conflict on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It seems that an evangelical congregation is, under local access laws, meeting after hours and on weekends in her local public school building.

As you would expect, Stewart is not amused:

Ours is just one of at least 60 New York City schools that have doubled as rent-free houses of worship — the vast majority of them evangelical Christian churches — in their off-hours. Many have little connection with the school communities. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the Village Church at Public School 3 in the West Village — a church that runs a Gender Affirming Ministry Endeavor associated with the movement to “cure” gay men and lesbians — is representative of the neighborhood.

A number of the new churches are the work of national “church-planting” organizations attracted to New York by the combination of cheap space and the opportunity to save the city from its apparent godlessness. Some are closely associated with national groups known for their hostility to “government education.” The church that meets at my daughter’s school is associated with a movement that instructs its members to pray for a Christian “reformation” of American education and for the election of like-minded political leaders.

And, as you would expect, this editorial includes a summary of some of the church-state law that looms over this conflict:

The situation originated in a 2001 decision, Good News Club vs. Milford Central School, in which the United States Supreme Court appeared to suggest that keeping religious groups out of schools after hours amounted to discrimination against their religious views. Subsequent federal rulings effectively forced the city to open school doors to nearly any religious group that asked for the privilege. But since school facilities are often available only on Sundays (when sports teams and extracurricular clubs are less likely to need space), Jews and Muslims, for example, were mostly shut out.

On June 2, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the city could restrict religious congregations from conducting worship services in schools. To exclude an activity from a school because it is religious in nature, Judge Pierre N. Leval wrote, is not to discriminate against it on account of its religious viewpoint. Indeed, the school system does not give access to partisan groups, and no one supposes that they are losing their freedom of speech just because they can’t get free space. Using the school system to subsidize houses of worship, on the other hand, risks violating the Constitutional ban on the establishment of religion.

So, Supreme Court bad. Second Circuit court good. Got it.

The obvious question is this: What the Times has here is a major news story. Why are we reading about it in the op-ed pages, in an essay written by a participant on one side of the conflict? Try to imagine the Times running a similar essay — with no response from the other side — by a leader in the efforts to defend these churches and their rights.

I should also mention something that is not mentioned in this advocacy piece. What we appear to have here is a school system that is applying the principles of equal-access laws, similar to the laws that govern student groups that meet before and after school hours (and perhaps during lunch).

The core principle is that the schools must treat different groups and, thus, different subjects equally. The schools can — yes, can — refuse space to religious groups, simply by denying use of the space to all groups equally. No Bible student-led Bible studies? Fine. No chess club. No Wiccan book club? Fine, no environmentalists club. The goal is not to practice unique discriminate against religion and religious groups.

Thus, it appears that Stewart’s school could turn this church away, simply by closing its doors to all outside groups. Discriminate against all and, thus, do not discriminate. It could (and I would say should) charge all of these groups according to a common set of fees. Again, no discrimination.

So what is the issue? The issue appears — again, we are reading an op-ed piece — is that opponents are saying that churches are now “partisan groups,” as in politically partisanship. In other words, the church proclaims its moral doctrines on moral and religious questions in word and in deed, in worship and in works.

Now that’s a subject for an in-depth Times report by a team or journalists. One would have to be very careful to offer accurate, balanced and informed views by experts and partisans on both sides. The journalists would have to be careful not to omit key facts in this complex and heated debate — such as the details of the actual law being discussed.

I mean, this is an important news story. It should be addressed — at least at first — with serious journalism. Correct? Op-ed columns come after a story has been covered in a professional, journalistic manner.

Also, Times editors could run a pair of dueling op-ed page essays by people on both sides. Otherwise, the Times would be publishing PR, not journalism.

CORRECTION: First, a thank you to readers who caught my error and to religion-beat veteran Laurie Goodstein for her respectful request for a correction. Especially this part:

I will assume that something went amiss in your search of Nexis or the website before you made the claims you did in this post.

First of all, I do not have a Nexis account and truly wish that I could afford a password. My mistake, this time, was rooted in the fact that my general searches on the site and through Google did not include the name of the court case. My mind was locked in on the substance of the op-ed itself and saw this as a story about the school and the church, not the court decision itself. Thus, I missed the court story that preceded the op-ed.

However, the most important point — for me — in Ms. Goodstein’s note is her link to at 2005 Times story about these equal-access issues for churches, along with other public groups linked to other subjects and issues. That earlier news story includes some crucial information that, well, lets one know that this is a complicated subject with two sides. Here is one crucial passage from back then:

The lawyer for the Bronx Household of Faith, Jordan Lorence, said the church planned to ask the judge to make that order permanent.

“There are thousands of non-school-related community groups that meet every weekend in New York City school buildings,” Mr. Lorence said. “We are not asking for any special treatment.”

Mr. Lorence said he believed that New York State was “by far the most recalcitrant jurisdiction in resisting equal access for churches.” Legal experts on various sides tend to agree that churches around the country have an easier time securing space for services in schools than those in New York.

“It’s very common,” said Tom Hutton, a staff lawyer for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “The easy rule of thumb is, you just have to treat outside groups the same, religious or not.”

“Rule of thumb”? Actually, these legal debates are much more specific and refined.

This earlier Times story is much, much better than the recent one — although it would have helped to have mentioned the kinds of principles that inform and frame equal-access debates of this kind, principles knocked out, for the most part, by a broad church-state coalition in the years of the Clinton-Gore administration.

It now appears, according to the Times story I missed, that city Education Department officials are rethinking the entire concept of equal-access laws that banned discrimination based on religious content.

The city’s Law Department said Thursday that more than 60 “congregations” obtained permits to use public schools for regular worship services in the 2008-9 school year. The Bronx Household of Faith has been using Public School 15.

The Law Department also said the Education Department was reviewing “its next steps for groups that are currently holding worship services in city schools” and would not ask groups “to cease using school buildings for services before the end of the school year.”

That’s an important story. Let’s hope it receives balanced and informed coverage in the news pages, since there is much, much more to this story than a single court decision and an advocacy sermon in the op-ed pages. This could go back to the high court.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Harold

    A quick search finds the NYT did cover the court decision on its news pages, the day after the story. So it was in the news section, not the op-ed pages, where the sotry was first covered.

  • Henry

    Cliche though it is to recall former NYT public editor Daniel Okrent’s opinions about the Times’ objectivity on certain issues, I feel compelled to do so.

    “…for now my concern is the flammable stuff that ignites the right. These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.”

  • Martha

    “Ours is just one of at least 60 New York City schools that have doubled as rent-free houses of worship — the vast majority of them evangelical Christian churches — in their off-hours.”

    Is this true? Speaking out of Irish experience, when outside groups want to hire our school facilities, they usually pay some kind of fee (to cover caretaker wages, etc.) for out-of-hours use. Are these New York schools really giving church groups free use of their facilities?

    And if they are, are they giving the church groups free use but charging, say, the Underwater Basket-Weaving Class rent? That would be discrimination, and then I could see the rationale for complaining. But if all groups are being treated equally, and the Fifth Ordo Templi of Cthulhu gets the same access as the New Wineskins Bible Bashers, or the Macrame Your Own Yurt Workshop, then I don’t see any reason to cry ‘foul’.

  • Mike Hickerson

    But since school facilities are often available only on Sundays (when sports teams and extracurricular clubs are less likely to need space), Jews and Muslims, for example, were mostly shut out.

    I wish this WERE a news story, because I would like to hear from some actual Jewish and Muslim groups about this point. ARE they shut out of the schools?

    Also, since I know a few people doing religious work in NYC, I’d like to comment on this sentence:

    A number of the new churches are the work of national “church-planting” organizations attracted to New York by the combination of cheap space…

    Hahahahahaha! That’s exactly right: people from the South and Midwest are flooding into NYC because of the affordable cost of living.

  • Amanda

    The comment in the article that “I learned that the church was using the school not just on Sunday mornings and evenings, but also on some Wednesday and Friday nights” suggests that Jewish and Muslim groups are not totally shut out. At the very least, there’s an empirical question about the ability of community groups to book the school on a Friday night that needs to be answered, because the information in the story points in two different directions.

    Besides, Friday night football isn’t a religion with many adherents in NYC. Surely there’s some space to share at the schools on a Friday evening.

  • Julia

    There is a really good story by Mary Wisniewski of Reuters that summarizes the history of public and religious schools in the US that has lots of input and doesn’t take sides.

  • Julia

    The later NYT article describes the ruling as forbidding “worship services”.

    “When worship services are performed in a place,” Judge Pierre N. Leval wrote for the majority, “the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity.”

    “The place has, at least for a time, become the church,” he wrote, adding that the city’s policy imposed “no restraint on the free expression of any point of view.” Rather, it applied only to “a certain type of activity — the conduct of worship services — and not to the free expression of religious views associated with it.”

    Judging from an earlier ruling that allows Bible study, it’s important to distinguish what exactly is a “worship service”. Considering the big differences in what goes on in different churches on Sunday morning, how is that going to be done? It would be easy to spot liturgical churches “worship services”, but where would you draw the line in Sunday meetings that are mainly some kind of Bible study, a talk and some singing?

    Is the performance by a “praise band” a “worship service?”
    Do Quakers consider their services “worship services?”
    If there are no overt prayers is it not a “worship service?”
    Is the singing of “Amazing Grace” an act of “worship”?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    the flammable stuff that ignites the right

    And the left aren’t ignited by gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others?

    As always, I feel a need to note that the Religious Right wasn’t formed in a vacuum: a Religious Left preceded it. I remember. You recently did a post on the religious viewpoint being pushed by the Times, which seems too content with invoking the boogeyman of the Religious Right without considering the Religious Left, which is, after all, the True Religion.

  • Laurie Goodstein

    Hi Terry,

    You guys at Get Religion usually do your homework, so I was surprised by this one. The very premise and headline are simply wrong. The NY Times DID cover this as a breaking news story in the metro section on June 3 – more than a week before the Op-Ed page ran the opinion piece which you did not like so much.

    This controversy and court case have been brewing since 1995, so it may be hard to remember all the previous NYT stories on this over the years. The most significant: in 2005, my colleagues Benjamin Weiser (who wrote the June 3 news story) and Susan Saulny did an 1800-word piece on the front page of the metro section about the controversy over churches using space in public schools in New York City.

    Here’s the url, from

    I agree with you, Terry, that the public is best served when the journalists precede the columnists, op-ed writers and talking heads. It doesn’t always work out that way, but in this case, it did.

    I will assume that something went amiss in your search of Nexis or the website before you made the claims you did in this post.


    Laurie Goodstein
    National Religion Correspondent
    The New York Times

  • Matt

    I think Laurie’s complaint is proper and needs to be addressed. The op-ed piece is highly problematic on many counts (does Stewart think that the Village Church is attended entirely by commuters? and the church’s own statement on homosexuality belies Stewart’s hot-button characterization). However, hostile partisanship, and even misinformation, can be acceptable in the op-ed pages as long as the paper has previously done its journalistic duty, which it seems to have done.

  • C. Wingate

    The “rent-free” claim caught my eye too, especially since it is explicitly contradicted in the actual news article: “The church now pays more than $40,000 a year for the space[.]” DO they not fact-check the op-ed pages?

  • tmatt


    Amen. See my response.

  • bob smietana

    The $40,000 rental fee mentioned in the 2005 article is a different congregation – The Mosaic Manhattan Church – not the The Bronx Household of Faith.

  • Maureen

    I don’t understand this court decision. Are they really saying that the type of activity performed in a neutral function room gives the room permanent activity cooties?

    So… it was unsanitary to have gym and perform plays in the same school multi-purpose room where we ate lunch, because the “gym sock cooties” would permanently contaminate our lunches?

    Does this mean that if any children have fights in the hallway, the hallway permanently becomes a combat zone? Fight Club?

    I’m fascinated by the implications of this whole “Law of Contamination” magical theory becoming legal theory in the Us.

  • Bobby

    First of all, I do not have a Nexis account and truly wish that I could afford a password.

    Amen. I always had Nexis access when I worked at The Oklahoman and AP. I really miss it, although you can find much more on Google than you could back in the days when Nexis was really the only place to see what newspapers across the country had written about a certain subject (short of reading the print editions themselves).

  • Matt

    Stewart’s “rent-free” line is based on her interview with the pastor whose church meets at her local school. She quotes him as saying, “We don’t pay rent! New York is way too expensive! We just pay the custodians’ fee.” She goes on to say that they pay “a pittance… far less than… $100,000.” Everything she says here is consistent with the possibility that congregations pay about $40,000 in fees (perhaps not technically called “rent”).

    To then rant about them meeting “rent-free” is pretty egregious.

  • Jerry

    Terry, I appreciated the update you provided based on the new information. I wish that kind of thing was common in the media.

  • earl

    Hmmmm, the schoolroom is least active and most available for Christians on Sundays? Why would that be? Why would the secular public schools not have class on Sundays? Something seems ironic here. Can’t put my finger on it…

  • Will

    Maureen: I noticed the “cooties” theory taken even farther in Steven Thrasher’s story on the Hebrew Language Academy charter school:

    “it’s bizarre that, like with HLA, taxpayers’ dollars are going to fund education in a building that previously offered religious education.

    I guess that “Religion” permanently contaminates a space.

  • tmatt


    As you know, when mainstream reporters dialogue with us, we ALWAYS try to put their words where readers can see them (if they can speak publicly). And we always try to respond.

    Also, in the past, I have repeatedly noted that the NYTimes takes the correcting of its own stories very seriously.

    As opposed to the Washington Post.

  • Amanda

    I said above that there’s an empirical question about the ability of community groups to book the school on a Friday night that needs to be answered, because the information in the story points in two different directions.

    If you read the opinion, Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education, docket no. 07-cv-5291 (June 2, 2011) (available for free on the Second Circuit’s website), the empirical question is partially answered. As the dissent notes, citing the Joint Appendix, several Jewish and Muslim groups have sought and received permission to use school facilities on Friday evenings and Saturdays for their religious services. See slip op. at 24-25. About 750 buildings are available after-school on Fridays, 400 on Saturdays, and 900 on Sundays. See slip op. at 25 n. 9. This doesn’t suggest that Jewish and Muslim (or Seventh Day Adventists) are shut out of using schools for their meetings and worship.

  • Steven

    Pastor Sam Andreades, of the Village Church – mentioned in Katherine Stewart’s OpEd – submitted a rebuttal to the NYTimes, which was, of course, rejected. But you can read it on the church’s website:

  • Ken Walker

    @Steven, thanks for the link. Yes, we’ve posted our response to the Op-Ed! Constructive discussion at the Village Church site is most welcome.

    Also, legal counsel from the ADA emailed us to tell us that the stay was automatically granted as part of the appeal filing. You can follow us on Twitter (@villagechurch) for updates.