Judge receptive to allowing churches in schools like P.S. 89
By Ronda Kaysen
The Dept. of Education returned to federal court last week to stop churches from holding services in city schools, an effort that could impact a Downtown church that holds its services at a public school in Battery Park City.
The city was forced to rent its school facilities to religious organizations outside of school hours after a federal appeals court ruled in 2003 that it is unconstitutional to deny churches access to school property that is available to non-religious groups, such as the Boy Scouts.
The Dept. of Ed. has since changed its case, now arguing that because the schools are available primarily on Sundays, the system favors Christian congregations over Jewish and Muslim ones and because many congregations regularly hold their services at a particular school, students might mistake the church for a school-sponsored event. The department is also arguing that the sudden proliferation of churches in the city schools is not incidental, but part of an effort to spread evangelism through the citys public schools.
Theres plenty of places Downtown where they could go, they chose the school for a reason, said Tom Goodkind, a Battery Park City resident and parent of an eight-year-old P.S. 89 student where Mosaic Manhattan, an evangelical church, holds weekly services.
Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical congregation in the Bronx, first lobbed the suit against the city in 1995 demanding access to a nearby public school, but was unsuccessful in its efforts until after a 2001 Supreme Court decision ruled it unconstitutional for the Milford, N.Y. school board to deny a Christian youth organization, the Good News Club, access to school facilities after school hours.
After the Good News Club ruling, the Bronx congregation revived its legal efforts and was granted a temporary injunction to use the space. The injunction affects all of the citys 1,200 public schools.
If the congregation prevails, the injunction will be made permanent. Given the new Supreme Court guidelines, sources close to the case think the Dept. of Ed. will have a difficult time convincing Judge Loretta Preska to rule in the citys favor.
In two years, 23 churches have begun holding services in school facilities, including Mosaic Manhattan at P.S./I.S. 89 on Warren St.
Were very concerned about the relationships that have been developing between the neighborhood and the school, said Lisa Grumet, counsel for the Dept. of Ed. during oral arguments on August 11.
The congregations must pay rent like all organizations that use school facilities to the individual schools for the time they use the space. Despite the fee, school auditoriums and cafeterias are still cheaper than other alternatives, church advocates insist, and denying churches access to the same affordable space that other groups have denies their First Amendment right to free speech.
The churches need a place to meet. These places [in public schools] are available, theyre at a good price and the school district offers them to everyone, said Jordan Lorence, a senior attorney at the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative legal group, and Bronx Household of Faiths pro-bono lawyer since 1995.
Of the 23 churches that have rented space in the schools since the court ruling, 22 of them have regular services on Sundays, Downtown Express learned through a review of city and court records. At least three of them, including Mosaic, are linked to a movement to plant evangelical churches in New York City schools.
Our prayer has been to see every one of New York Citys 1,200 schools a meeting place for the people of God, co-pastor Robert Hall of Bronx Household of Faith wrote in his congregations summer 2003 newsletter, according to court documents.
Shortly after the 2003 ruling, Hall told Citizen Magazine, a periodical published by the conservative Christian group, Focus on the Family, The church is Gods method of evangelism, and thats why meeting in the schools is so important.
Mosaic in Battery Park City is largely funded by New Hope New York, a church planting organization founded in 2001 by the North American Mission Board, the domestic mission agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. If you filled every church in New York City, there would still be 10 million people who wouldnt have a place to worship, Dave Howard, director of the North American Mission Board, told Downtown Express last year.
Mosaic came under fire from members of the Battery Park City community when it distributed balloons emblazoned with crosses on them to school children at a 2003 back-to-school event. Since that event, the congregation has not proselytized at school events.
Recently, church members distributed chocolate to children leaving Church Street School for Art and Music, including Tom Goodkinds daughter. According to Goodkind, a Battery Park City resident, the members encouraged his eight-year-old daughter, a P.S. 89 student who identified herself as Jewish to church members, to attend their services. Choosing the school is an element of controversy because theyre getting to a community through its children, Goodkind said.
Supporters of the effort to open schools to church services insist the resistance comes from critics of evangelical Christianity who would not make the same noise if the houses of worship in question were of a different breed.
There is evidence to support that. Downtown Synagogue, an egalitarian temple without a permanent home has periodically held its services at P.S. 89 and also at P.S. 234, a public school located a few blocks away in Tribeca. It has not encountered the sort of resistance from the community that Mosaic has received, nor does it receive much attention in the Dept. of Ed.s case.
New York is generally accepted as being the bastion of secular thinking so Christians like myself are characterized as rightwing radicals who want to take over the world, said Jack Roberts, co-pastor of Bronx Household of Faith. Were perceived as dangerous people, its actually quite the opposite.
Mosaic has no plans to leave P.S. 89 anytime soon. It still holds services every Sunday in the school auditorium and so long as the courts continue to rule in its favor, Mosaic will continue to hold its services there. Were reaching out to folks in our community, pastor Gregg Farah told Downtown Express in an interview last year, noting that half of the parish lived in the immediate area. Church can be an incredible force in the community. Farah did not return calls for comment for this story.
At last weeks hearing, Judge Preska appeared skeptical of the citys case, and grilled the citys legal team with questions. She had few questions for Lorence, counsel for the Bronx congregation.
The Supreme Court has told us how to proceed here, Preska said at the hearing.
Of the citys argument about church planting efforts, she said, I dont see what the relevance of all this is.
Regardless of how Preska rules, the case will most likely appear before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled against the city in 2003. Grumet is hopeful the appeals court will reverse its decision on further review. The Second Circuit had very strong language about the separation of church and state, she told Preska at the hearing.
Lorence agrees Preskas ruling will not mean the end of this case, although he is cautiously optimistic Preska will rule in his favor. This will not be over for a couple of years, he said. New York State may get spanked again at the Supreme Court.