Monday, February 20, 2012

Church Evictions Unnecessary

Mayor Bloomberg's eagerness to evict churches from NYC public school buildings seems to be impossible to defend.

Churches in Schools

In our city, schools have been used as venues for churches on weekends when otherwise vacant. Community groups of all types, including Christian churches, use school buildings when the buildings are available. In fact, more than 10,000 groups use NYC school buildings for non-school activities.

Religions that celebrate their day(s) of worship during school days are unable to use schools for their worship services, but religious groups of all sorts are able to use school buildings for their activities.

Legal Challenges

The United States Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal to a case that held that governments could deny use of public school facilities to religious groups.

The Bloomberg Administration has embraced that ruling and announced a plan to evict church organizations from their once-a-week spaces in NYC public schools.

Flaws in the Theory

But, the Bloomberg approach is quite flawed. Church leaders presented their case well in the Daily News last week:
We pay the same rents and operate under the same terms as every other group.
Excluding congregations alone contradicts a city that from its birth has celebrated freedom and pluralism.
As we contemplate eviction, Mayor Bloomberg’s declaration 17 months ago haunts us. In defending the right of a mosque to build near Ground Zero, he said: “We in New York . . . are Americans, each with an equal right to worship and pray where we choose. There is nowhere in the five boroughs that is off-limits to any religion. By affirming that basic idea, we will honor America’s values, and we will keep New York the most open, diverse, tolerant and free city in the world.”
The mayor’s boasts from another occasion ring equally hollow: “Our doors are open to everyone . . . Of all our precious freedoms, the most important may be the freedom to worship as we wish. And it is a freedom that, even here in a city that is rooted in Dutch tolerance, was hard-won over many years.”
The mayor argues that when the city allows churches to use school buildings for worship services on weekends, it confuses communities and children into believing that there’s an official religion established at a particular school.
The logic is craven. Are we to believe that the same New Yorkers Bloomberg admonished to “do what is right, not what is easy” during the mosque controversy now cannot tell the difference between a mosque, synagogue or church that rents an empty school facility on weekends and the academic instruction that occurs in the same building Monday through Friday?
New Yorkers are smarter than that. Our children are smarter than that, too.
Mayor Bloomberg owes our city's religious institutions the same respect that he provides non-religious groups.

New York State Legislature in the Spotlight

The State Senate has passed a bill that would ensure that congregations are treated no worse than other community groups. The State Assembly has not yet voted on the measure. The State Assembly will improve our city and send a wonderful message to Mayor Bloomberg by ensuring equality in the use of public space. They should send the bill to Governor Cuomo immediately for his signature.

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