By Bob Smietana
A long-running dispute between churches and the New York City school system over rental space for worship services is not quite over yet.
But city officials say they are working to give faith groups more access to rental space.
At issue is a policy that bans churches from holding worship services in schools.
That ban had been on hold in recent years, due to a legal challenge by the Bronx Household of Faith, a small congregation that currently meets in a public school.
In early April, a circuit court upheld the ban. But New York City mayor Bill de Blasio wants the policy changed.
“I believe that a faith-based organization has a right like anyone else…to use that space,” de Blasio told the Wall Street Journal last week.
Chancellor Carmen Fariña agrees, according to an official statement from the New York City Department of Education. The statement said that the department is working on “options on how to give opportunities to faith organizations.”
In the past, Fariña has opposed allowing churches to worship in schools.
“In our view, permitting worship services in DOE’s public schools violates the separation of church and state,” she said in official testimony in 2005, according to New York Daily News.
City officials have long worried that allowing churches to hold worship services gives the impression that the school system endorses a specific religion.
Supporters of the ban say allowing worship services in a school blurs the lines between church and state.
The New York Civil Liberties Union made that argument in a brief supporting the ban on rentals for worship services:
“Given the potentially perpetual occupation of the school facilities by the church each and every Sunday, the powerful religious message that is conveyed in a worship service, and the special status of public school buildings as the center of municipal life in many New York City communities, reasonable observers within those communities might well believe that, at least on Sundays, there is a unity between public schools and church that conveys an endorsement of religion by the government.”
The city’s department of education now says faith groups should have access to renting public schools. The department’s official statement said it wants to treat faith groups the same way it treats other community organizations.
“Faith organizations playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserve access, however these organizations have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space and pay the same permit charges,” the department said in a statement. “These are important groups in our community and they deserve a right to space.”
Still, the ban remains official policy, reports Emily Belz of World magazine.
“Since the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ban on churches almost two weeks ago, de Blasio has reiterated his support for the churches but has not taken concrete action as of yet,” wrote Belz.
An attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Phoenix-based Christian legal group that represents that Bronx Household of Faith, told World that churches will be allowed to rent space in schools for Holy Week services, “The churches are not going to be evicted on Good Friday or Easter,” ADF attorney Jordan Lorence told World.
Lorence said the Bronx Household of Faith is not waiting for the mayor to act and plans to appeal the circuit court ruling.