Schools biased against non-Christians?

In the fast-growing Bible Belt community where I live, it’s not uncommon to see portable church signs outside public school buildings on Sundays.

As housing additions go up, churches often rent space in schools until they can (a) build a permanent facility or (b) develop a flock large enough to support one.

Since schools generally are empty on weekends — and board members typically are eager to pump extra funds into cash-strapped coffers — this arrangement seems to have worked where I live. I’ve never worshiped in a local school cafeteria, but if other folks doing so is the alternative to higher taxes, I can’t say that I mind it.

Alas, given that churches renting schools has been the norm here for as long as I can remember, I couldn’t help but chuckle at a USA TODAY headline this week:

‘Instant churches’ convert public schools to worship spaces

Stop the presses!

Seriously, I suspect that this came as news to some of USA TODAY’s nationwide readership. And the paper did have a timely peg — a recent court decision against churches leasing public school space in New York. Yes, New York City. The top of the 1,200-word report:

Praise the Lord and pass the crates with the pre-fab pulpit and the portable baptistery inside. The Forest Hills Community Church is moving into P.S. 144 — sort of.

Every Sunday morning, the elementary school in Queens, like dozens more schools in New York City and thousands more nationwide, is transformed into a house of worship for a few hours.

There’s no tally of how many churches, synagogues and mosques convert public school spaces into prayer places for the nominal cost of permits and promises to make no permanent changes in the school setting. What’s clear is that there has been a steady rise in numbers as congregations find schools are available, affordable and accessible to families they want to reach.

What’s not clear to me is how that’s clear. If there’s no tally, how does USA TODAY know that there’s been a steady rise? Where are the numbers — any numbers — to back up this claim? Later, we learn that the newspaper’s survey found that the nation’s five largest school districts and its five fastest-growing school systems all permit religious groups to hold services on weekends. But no figures are given on whether the permit numbers are up in those districts, and over what period.

Equally vague is the next section of the story — the nut graf:

Critics, including some courts, are concerned that these arrangements are an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state. They say these bargain permit effectively subsidize religious congregations who would have to pay steeply higher prices on the open market. They also note that the practice appears to favor Christian groups, which worship on Sundays — when school spaces are most often available.

Who are the critics? How are they voicing their concerns? How many critics are there? Are they all over the country or just a few folks in New York City? What do constitutional law experts say, experts on both sides of this very hot issue? The story fails to answer such basic questions.

As for the description of the arrangements as “bargain permits,” how much do churches pay to rent schools? Do some schools charge more than others? I’ve read some reports — in Nashville, Tenn., for example -— of schools that recoup only utility fees and related costs. But elsewhere, such arrangements seem to be a big boost for school budgets.

Here’s the top of a Palm Beach Post story from last year:

There’s life after the last bell: On a recent Sunday, Oklahoma-based’s 9:30 a.m. service drew enough parishioners to fill the west side of Palm Beach Central High School’s parking lot. Space rented from the high school may run five figures, but the school’s state-of-the-art auditorium is a good fit with LifeChurch’s JumboTron-like broadcast sermons and live music.

And when LifeChurch is shutting down its Sunday services and pulling its 26-foot trailer out of the Wellington school’s parking lot, the Tabernacle Pentecost congregation’s truck is pulling in.

“It can get interesting,” LifeChurch campus pastor Larry Mayer said of the back-to-back ministries.

That’s not the half of it.

Soul line dancing. A poetry slam. Pre-kindergarten graduation. A Sweet Sixteen party, wedding reception, family reunion: Organizations ranging from tutoring franchises to the How Ya Livin ministry are leasing portables, fields and auditoriums, pouring millions of dollars into school district coffers — $3.6 million in the 2008-09 school year alone.

In some places, it seems, those “bargain permits” add up.

Another issue in some master-planned suburbs is that developers have marked off every piece of land in town — for houses, for stores, for parks, for schools, etc. Some fail to allow enough space for churches, so residents are left to drive elsewhere or find an alternative meeting location closer to home, i.e., a school. In other words, this issue is not simply a matter of “bargain permits,” and the New York case and experience don’t necessarily translate to every place across America where churches lease school buildings.

As noted above, USA TODAY focuses on the discrimination angle:

New York City, the largest, is typical: Christian churches are the primary clients because Muslims and Jews worship on Fridays and Saturdays, when school spaces usually are being used for student activities.

Could the fact that more than three out of four Americans identify as Christians also contribute to that discrepancy?

All in all, USA TODAY did a pretty nice job of covering the New York angle. But the effort to expand that case to a national level and apply its specific situation to all 50 states seemed to stretch the facts without adequate sourcing or insight. (For a bit more context on the New York case, be sure to read tmatt’s recent Scripps Howard column on this subject. The key words: “Equal” and “access,” as in “equal-access laws,” which do exist).

Video: Alliance Defense Fund video making its case against the New York ruling.

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Martha

    “They also note that the practice appears to favor Christian groups, which worship on Sundays — when school spaces are most often available.”

    Again, this doesn’t make much sense to me. Yes, Christian services are mostly held on Sundays, so of course that’s when they want to rent the space. Agreed, if you’re (say) a Muslim group wanting to rent the hall for a Friday prayer group, you’re probably going to have some juggling of time-tables to deal with.

    But I really don’t see why the Atheist Basket-Weaving and Home-Brewing Group can’t meet there on Saturday or Sunday, as well. I mean, I don’t see how the home-brewers might be free at eleven o’clock Wednesday morning but dash it, the whole of Sunday, they’re all working?

  • Bob Smietana

    In the case of Brooklyn House of Faith against the NYC Board of Education, the appeals court raised the issue of discriminating against nonChristians:

    “In our view, Bronx Household’s long-term weekly use of P.S. 15 for Christian worship services at the Board’s expense, and the effective exclusion of competing religious groups who would wish to hold services in schools on days other than Sunday but are effectively precluded by school-related activities from doing so, provides a substantially stronger basis for fearing an Establishment Clause violation than the after-school use of a single classroom by a religious
    group at issue in Good News Club.”

  • tmatt


    Valid and accurate point.

    However, the story needs the larger frame — the national equal-access laws and the attempts not to single out religion as a uniquely dangerous form of speech and public associations. The goal is to be open to ALL non-profits — or none.

    Do discrimination on the base of religious content.

    That has to be a key element of the report or readers do not know what the legal clashes are actually about IN THE NATION, not just the unique place that is New York City.

  • Kunoichi

    There is a similar, yet completely different, situation going on in Toronto.
    These are older articles, and the story has gotten increasingly controversial as it’s developed.

  • Bobby

    The USA TODAY piece does include this information on the New York case:

    The city school board’s legal briefs argue the practice “improperly advances religion” by, in effect, subsidizing the churches with facilities below market rate and shows “favoritism” to Christian churches as religions that don’t worship on Sundays are generally shut out.

    The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In his June ruling, Judge Pierre Leval wrote that the Bronx House of Faith, ensconced since 2002 in P.S. 15, “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.”

    The Bronx church is seeking a rehearing. Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents the church, expects the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the ruling. Lorence said in a news release, “Religious groups, including churches, shouldn’t be discriminated against simply because they want to rent a public building just like other groups can.”

    But again, the story provides no information to back up the assertion that New York’s situation is a nationwide trend drawing complaints from critics.

  • Hugh

    Is the problem just one of price, in that the School Board claims that the facilities are rented out “below market rate”?

    Is there high demand for School facilities on Sunday mornings that is driving up prices?

    Since when was a School Board ever interested in market rates?

  • Elijah

    “In our view, Bronx Household’s long-term weekly use of P.S. 15 for Christian worship services at the Board’s expense…”

    But if in fact the rentals are (1) long-term arrangements (in writing? oral? obligations on the part of both parties?) and (2) apparently at the Board’s expense, I have some real concerns even though I support the general idea. When our church rented the local high school it was $250 for 2.5 hours plus a small custodial fee. I would never expect the Board to cover renters’ costs. And I would be concerned that long-term arrangements could end up being exclusionary. In all honesty, I would hope the school Board would do whateve is in it’s own best interests.

    I fail to see how it’s exclusionary to rent out space available on Sundays to people who want to use it on Sundays. I really just don’t get that.

  • Mari

    The charter school in my neighborhood rents out space to a church that had sold their building in Logan Circle and are supposidly building a mega-church building in Maryland. In the meanwhile they are in our hood. The charter school also will rent space for weddings. The thing is schools don’t seem to be the most, agressive or savvy landlords trying to rent out their space. You have to approach them, they aren’t going out of their way to rent to you. The other problem is they did and have promised free use of space for community groups. So any group loosely associated with the neighborhood assoc., say the Bates Area Atheists Basketweavers could use the the school space for free, provided you hunt down the right administrator and even if you do, no guarentee that the bathrooms will be unlocked (or that you can find someone to unlock the bathrooms). Oh, and it has to be a day that staff is going to be around anyway (if you want it for free).
    Since the school will rent to your church or your wedding party, funeral party (for repasts) or other function that won’t piss off the neighbors (no dance parties, loud music or late night gatherings) on weekends they are not favoring any particular religion or group.
    Also note, churches also rent out theater space, this can get gray when the theater/theatre is held up with govt funds.

  • tmatt


    My main point is that the story does nothing to place the NYC battles in the context of the national LEGAL scene and the equal-access laws affirmed by everyone from the ACLU and the Clinton White House to lawyers for conservative religious groups.

  • Don Ibbitson

    The title is phrased as a question.. and I think the answer is “no”. The separation of church and state is a red herring. The fact that these government-funded buildings can recoup some revenue from any and all non-profits is a huge blessing to the government and the user. Let it be.. it is all good!

  • Marie

    “They also note that the practice appears to favor Christian groups, which worship on Sundays — when school spaces are most often available.”

    This makes it sound as if school districts have been deciding to hold school Monday through Friday with the express purpose of keeping other faiths out.

  • Lori B.


    My thoughts exactly. From that sentence alone, one is left wondering when the ACLU will sue the board for holding classes Mon. – Fri. so as to discriminate against non-Christians.

  • Charles

    Remember when churches hosted municipal town hall meetings, school graduations, youth sports programs, etc. for free?

  • Charles

    Or perhaps the state fears what parents are teaching those future citizens outside of school.