Hey Times folks! Can you say “equal access”?

On one level, the ongoing New York Times coverage of the church-state showdown over rental policies in city public schools has shown an admirable interest in the plight of specific churches that are struggling to find new homes.

At the same time, it does appear that some folks in the newsroom may be aware that — as I mentioned the other day — this is a church-state showdown with two sides, with legitimate church-state arguments that favor the churches as well as the concerns expressed by city officials. Those concerns? It seems to be that worship services mysteriously, yet literally, transform physical spaces into zones that remain dangerously non-secular when later used for other purposes (almost a kind of holy heebie-jeebies effect).

You can see the two stories battle it out at the top of the (rather short) Times update from Sunday:

On the last Sunday before a city policy went into effect barring religious services in public schools, leaders of congregations around the city expressed a range of responses, with some taking a pragmatic attitude and others vowing to not give up without a fight.

Ed Schefter, the pastor of City Bible Church N.Y., which had met at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School on West 46th Street, said he had looked at 25 possible places to relocate and finally found an appropriate space at 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue.

“It’s a huge dance studio — it’s beautiful,” he said. He said that the arrangement was only temporary because the space was not big enough for his growing congregation, but that it at least meant he did not have to worry about his church’s being homeless.

So there is the homeless church nod, a theme that will continue later in the piece.

But the key, once again, is the actual content of the legislation. You see, New York City is not the first place to debate these specific issues — although one would not know that from reading the coverage in the Times. (If there is another, more complete Times story out there that I have not found, a story that addresses the specifics of “equal access” laws, please let me know. I will happily apologize.)

But for now, this is what we get in this short report:

The State Senate passed a bill last week that would effectively reverse the court ruling and allow the congregations to continue meeting in schools, but the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, has expressed concerns about it.

“The speaker believes that the Senate bill is overly broad,” Mr. Silver’s spokesman, Michael Whyland, said in an e-mail on Sunday. “We are looking for a narrow bill that tracks Supreme Court decisions on separation of church and state and establishment of religion and give lawful discretion to the city in making a determination on the use of their facilities.”

Overly broad? What are readers supposed to make of that reference?

However, if one backs up a few days to an earlier Times report, there are a few clues as to the actual content of this church-state news story. Let’s look at a few specifics in that report, starting with this passage near the top:

The bill, sponsored by Senator Martin J. Golden, Republican of Brooklyn, says that congregations may hold services in schools when the property is not being used for school purposes. The bill would effectively undo a court ruling last year that upheld a policy of the New York City Education Department prohibiting religious services from being held in public schools after hours.

“This is about equal access,” Mr. Golden said from the Senate floor.

Oh. No.

It appears that if a Republican attempting to defend the churches spoke the words “equal access,” which means (call it the “religious liberty” principle) that the words “equal access” must be mere spin. There is no way to know that equal-access laws are in effect elsewhere, roughly from coast to coast, and they were the product of an amazingly diverse liberal-conservative legal coalition during the Clinton Administration.

The whole idea, once again, is that government cannot discriminate against religious speech and symbolic action, thus acting as if religious activities are a uniquely dangerous form of human activity. Officials are supposed to treat religious non-profit groups just like other non-profits. There is no difference between a Baptist church sitting in folding chairs on Sunday morning and a book club for environmentalists filling those same chairs on Tuesday night. The goal is to avoid “viewpoint discrimination” that forces the state to become entangled in doctrinal decisions — creating a church-state nightmare.

However, if schools and other public institutions choose to do so, they are allowed to ban ALL rental agreements with non-profit groups. It’s an all-or-none situation, with no discrimination on the basis of content.

Now, let’s see if we can see any signs that these realities are lurking — like ghosts — between the lines of the Times coverage:

“I think the way the Senate is taking it up, it’s seriously flawed,” said the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, Democrat of Manhattan. “It would open up the schools to anybody. It might include the Ku Klux Klan. If you’re going to do anything, you’re going to have to make the city make a determination as to what’s an appropriate use of the schools.”

In a spirited exchange with Senator John J. Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who is a sponsor of the bill, Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat of Manhattan, questioned whether the bill violated the separation of church and state. Mr. Flanagan said the bill dealt with free-speech issues.

Note the Ku Klux Klan reference. Yes, the passage of an equal-access law — built on the Clinton-era model — would suggest that unsavory groups would be eligible. And, of course, one person’s unsavory group (let’s say a Wiccan group applying for space in a public school in, oh, Colorado Springs) is another’s brave religious or political minority.

Thus, it does appear that the New York Senate Democrats fear the sweeping nature of equal-access laws. They fear, in other words, the effect of a truly liberal and tolerant law — in the old sense of those words.

However, note that the TimesAGAIN — has published language suggesting that the only potential church-state question here concerns whether churches and other religious bodies are allowed to rent public spaces in which to hold dangerous worship services. There is no sign — AGAIN — that anyone recognizes that the state is practicing “viewpoint discrimination” against these churches, renting to non-profits whose doctrines and practices are acceptable to state officials, while rejecting these uniquely dangerous religious folks.

The Times is covering a church-state battle in which one side is waving banners that say “free access” while the other side’s banners say “viewpoint discrimination.” Do the editors know that? Do they realize which side of this battle is the “liberal” side, as defined by that Clinton-era coalition of church-state separationists?

Just asking. Again.

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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.

  • Martha

    I am curious as to one thing; I’m assuming the schools are permitting churches and similar bodies to rent their unused gym and assembly hall spaces for reasons of raising revenue (because there was never yet a school that said no to bake sales, raffles, sponsored walks, bag-packing or other methods of getting extra cash), but if one of the concerns of the people who want to stop these activities is that other, reliably-secular, groups are barred from access on Sunday mornings –

    - well, are there hordes of pottery, dance, self-defence, cookery and the like classes clamouring to fill the Sunday hours or will the schools be left empty on Sunday mornings, meaning that private businesses like the dance studio mentioned in the article will be picking up the slack?

    I agree that if a church has been meeting in a ‘temporary’ situation for five years or more, maybe they should consider getting their own building, but it does seem to be something along the lines of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face: the schools won’t be getting any extra revenue, but at least they will be guaranteed religion-free (and will the resolutely secular boycott gyms and dance studios that rent out space on Sunday mornings, or are they able to avoid picking up any religious germs still lurking on Monday morning?)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    OK, I’ll ask another journalistic question.

    If the city’s stance is not “liberal,” in the sense of First Amendment history, how should it be described in journalistic language? Journalists face the same question with the HHS rules story, btw.

  • sari

    I get a sense that this may be less about renting to churches and more about having to rent to members of other faiths, particularly Muslims. Why use the liberal designation at all?

  • tmatt

    So, sari, you oppose the use of public facilities by religious minorities?

    Why single them out over other non-profits? What is your legal and journalistic logic there?

  • sari

    Do I personally? No, of course not. Religious minorities pay the same taxes as everyone else and therefore deserve the same access. Like free speech, we must take the bad with the good or risk all freedom.

    What I said was that I got the feeling that that was the core issue in NY, one that’s implied but never stated. I also asked why a liberal (or conservative, for that matter) designation was relevant to the discussion.

  • susie

    Oh, Sari, I think it’s much less “discriminatory” than that. While I am sure that there are people in NYC who might find renting the space to Muslims “unsavory” I think it’s something quite different.

    Unfortunately the mainstream media mimics the loudest voices in our “culture”. I believe this is just one more way for government to trump faith if it can. Separation of church and state today reminds me of the old saying “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine”.

    And as a side note I do not believe that taxation is what gives equal access. Citizenship should give equal access.

  • tmatt

    SARI:

    If you read the earlier coverage, you knew that IN NYC the biggest complaints were about space being rented to evangelical Protestants.

    In the SENATE debates there may be concerns about Islam and other religions. However, it would be hard to voice those concerns today. Note the KKK reference, again.

  • Matt Jamison

    My question is how the city intends to define worship as a category of activity to be prohibited. Apparently prayer, the singing of hymns, religious classes, potlucks, etc. are permissible but “worship” is not.

    Compounding the difficulty is that different religious traditions use the term worship in widely different ways. Muslims typically refer to their Friday services as “prayers.” The evangelical groups that are actually using the schools often tend toward a kind of informality that could easily dispense with the term to describe their weekly activities. Are Jewish sabbath services to be considered worship?

    I would like to see more journalists probing these questions.

  • sari

    Actually, tmatt, Muslims and Jews have been pretty much shut out of the rental game, the former because their Sabbath worship falls on a school day and the latter because their Sabbath worship falls on a day when school extracurriculars have first dibs on the property. Setting aside the religious liberty aspects for a second, what’s clear is that practical concerns have allowed the churches a level of access that has been routinely denied to the others.

  • Dan Arnold

    Sari’s point is why I thought the equal access issue was the central concern in the ruling. Given that outside organizations can only use school facilities when they are not being utilized by the schools themselves, the meeting of churches in those buildings on Sundays created a defacto privileging of one religion over the others and decidedly unequal access. But I haven’t seen much reported about this aspect of the ruling. Where can someone go to learn about how this might have affected the ruling?

  • sari

    NYC public schools policy originally prohibited (religious) worship on school grounds. The churches were given a temporary accommodation to rent the disputed space only because of litigation that they, the churches (actually one church, originally), instigated. They’re not losing a privilege they once enjoyed but a temporary privilege that was extended contingent on the decision. There’s little doubt that Albany will find a way to reinstate their access, for very pragmatic reasons.

    In slogging through the mountain of (mis)information on this topic, one thing that stands out is the issue of who can access the space while it’s in use as a church. Typically, extracurriculars held on school property must be open to anyone. A Boy Scout troop cannot limit its membership only to people who hold certain beliefs. In practice, people sort along their interests and backgrounds. According to several of the articles, at least some of the churches are closed to non-members and have very specific criteria for membership.

    The distinction between formal worship (services) and other meetings with a religious nature is very important. Interruptions, be they accidental or not, are annoying but expected, and will not derail a classroom or Bible study. Worship requires the room to be dedicated exclusively to its use. The room stands out of time and the types of interruptions typical of a school building, even on a Sunday, will not be tolerated. My synagogue deals with this in the space we share with the JCC’s preschool. We own it from sundown Friday through Saturday evening; they own it the rest of the time. Conflicts occur on a pretty regular basis, even though the preschool is closed on the Sabbath. Holidays are particularly problematic.