Once a month, Village Church volunteers offer their neighborhood a gift — free babysitting.
This Friday “Parents Night Out” program uses non-religious crafts and games, which is important because the Presbyterian flock’s leaders insist that it’s open to parents of any “creed, color, party or orientation.” It helps to know that this evangelical church is located in New York City’s Greenwich Village and meets in rented space in Public School 3.
“We’re New Yorkers and we know all about the incredible diversity of life in the Village,” said the Rev. Sam Andreades, a former computer professional with a New York University graduate degree. “We’re trying to be part of that diversity. We live here.”
The question, however, is whether the Village Church will get to stay where it is, pending the resolution of an old church-state clash that is probably headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court. It is one of 60 churches that rent space — outside of school hours — in New York City’s nearly 1,700 schools. About 10,000 non-religious groups take advantage of the same opportunity.
The question that vexes some educators is whether it’s acceptable for churches to worship in their buildings. This is currently allowed under equal-access laws that have become common nationwide in recent decades.
At the heart of the debate is a 2001 Supreme Court decision — Good News Club vs. Milford Central School — that instructed educators to offer religious groups the same opportunity to use public-school facilities as secular groups. School leaders can elect to close their buildings to secular and religious groups alike, thus avoiding discrimination.
Now, the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has challenged this status quo. In a 2-1 decision, it backed New York City school board attempts to ban regular worship services in its facilities, while allowing for some other forms of religious expression by religious groups.
“When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes,” wrote Judge Pierre N. Leval. “The site is no longer simply in a room in school being used temporarily for some activity. … The place has, at least for a time, become the church.”The implication is that a “mysterious transformation” literally takes place during these worship services, noted Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, a lawyer who has been involved in equal-access cases in New York City and elsewhere for a quarter of a century.
“There isn’t some kind of architectural alchemy at work here that suddenly turns a school facility into a dangerous place,” he said. “Allowing unions to rent space in schools doesn’t turn them into union halls. Allowing Alcoholics Anonymous to use a school doesn’t turn it into the Betty Ford Clinic.”
However, this ongoing conflict is evidence that many New Yorkers are spooked by the thought of people — especially evangelicals — worshipping in spaces created for secular education. The bottom line: What if believers dared to pray for the students and teachers who occupy those spaces on school days?
In a New York Times essay, activist Katherine Stewart explained why she fiercely opposes having a church meet behind the red door of her local school on the Upper East Side. She also attacked the Village Church by name.
“I could go on about why my daughter’s photo should not be made available for acts of worship, or why my P.T.A. donations should not be used to supply furniture for a religious group that thinks I am bound for hell,” concluded the author of the upcoming book, “The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.”
“Maybe it’s just that I imagine that that big red door is about education for all, not salvation for a few. Sometimes a building is more than a building.”
The most disturbing theme in these arguments, said Andreades, is the frequent claim that his church and others like it are somehow aliens in their city. Renting space in PS3, he noted, allows his small flock to invest 10 percent of its budget into Village charities — from an AIDS research center to programs for shut-ins, from arts projects to soup kitchens.
“This church has been in the Village for 16 years,” he said. “We’ve had members attend that public school and teach at it. … We know who we are and where we are and we think we belong here.”