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Opinion
What you need to know for 01/21/2017

When church is the same as school

When church is the same as school

Here’s a question for you: Is it OK for a public school to be used as a church on Sundays?

Here’s a question for you: Is it OK for a public school to be used as a church on Sundays?

The question is more than academic. In New York City there are about 60 evangelical churches that hold their Sunday worship services exclusively in public schools. The practice has been the subject of a court battle going back a decade and more, with the Board of Education most recently trying to put an end to it and the churches naturally trying to continue it.

Nor is it confined to the big city. In the Cobleskill-Richmondville Central School District in Schoharie County, two churches use public schools for their Sunday services — the Calvary Chapel of the Hills and the Fusion Community Church, which uses the high school auditorium, despite a written policy of the school district that prohibits meetings run by a “religious sect or denomination.”

At its most recent meeting, the school board tabled a decision on whether to continue such cooperation, pending legal clarification.

The New York Civil Liberties Union opposes such crossover between schools and churches on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment prohibition against the establishment of a religion.

A group of First Amendment scholars supports it on the grounds of free speech.

The question has become lively enough that our state Legislature is considering a bill that would unequivocally allow schools to double as churches, which is only to be expected, since religion is in the same category as apple pie, and our legislators have always been firm friends of apple pie.

Besides, they invite clergymen into their chambers to pray over them at the beginning of their own sessions, so obviously they see nothing worrisome about public buildings doubling as houses of worship. It’s natural to them.

I’m not sure how this whole business began, but one landmark in the long legal history of it was a Supreme Court decision in 2001 that disallowed “viewpoint discrimination” in the use of the public school in the little village of Milford in Otsego County. That essentially meant you couldn’t bar religious groups from using the schools; you’d be discriminating against them because of their viewpoint.

In response, the New York City Board of Education eventually adopted a rule explicitly barring worship services. So an evangelical Christian group could meet in the school auditorium after hours and discuss the Bible, maybe, or possibly even sing a hymn, but they couldn’t have a regular church service. (You can see how it might be tricky to draw a line between the acceptable and the unacceptable under such a rule.)

Legal fighting continued, and in June of last year the federal Court of Appeals in New York City ruled against the churches and cleared the way for the city to expel them.

The Supreme Court surprisingly enough refused to hear an appeal of that ruling — surprisingly, because the court, which opens it own proceedings with prayer, seems more and more friendly to religion.

So in February the city ordered the churches out of the schools, but then, lo, along came a lower, district court to defy the higher court’s ruling and allow the churches to stay.

You might have expected the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to immediately smack down the upstart district court, but lo again, it did no such thing. Rather, it allowed the ruling to stand at least until June, so more evidence can be heard.

And that’s where we are now, waiting.

If the Legislature does pass its churches-in-schools bill, I believe it will still be subject to challenge on the grounds of encouraging the establishment of religion.

The problem, as I see it, is that religion, and especially Protestant Christianity, is so woven into our history that it’s difficult to unweave it, and when you try to, you get claims that you’re restricting freedom of religion, which I think is pretty funny, but that’s the way it is. If you don’t let believers pray all over you, you’re violating their rights.

Let them go pray in a closet, per Matthew 6:6, is what I say, but alas my word carries little weight.

It surely is tough when Congress pays chaplains to pray, when the Supreme Court opens with prayers, when the president gets sworn in with a Bible, when “God” is plastered on our money and our courthouse walls, to say, well, religion doesn’t belong in public buildings.

Are you kidding? Especially these days, with Republican candidates for president carrying on like candidates for archbishop. I’ll be surprised if one of them doesn’t show up in miter and cope before the season is over.

Santorum is so far gone he doesn’t even believe in public schools, never mind whether churches should be allowed to use them. He thinks there should only be churches.

So it’s a knotty problem culturally as well as legally. You’ve got free speech versus the establishment of religion, but you’ve also got the whole howling Christian revival that has been going on for some 30 years now and that has enraptured enough people to put science on the defensive, not to mention secularism.

Did someone say secularism? In Republican circles, at least, you might as well say satanism.

Anyway, I’ll be interested to see how this plays out.

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