Wednesday, August 10, 2005

NEW YORK — Dozens of volunteers show up at 7 a.m. on Sundays at Christ Tabernacle to haul screens, banners and musical instruments to a school two miles away.

The evangelical, charismatic church on bustling Myrtle Avenue near several strip malls, brick row houses and cemeteries is growing so fast that there is no place to put its 2,500 members.

The resulting spillover into a local school mirrors what booming churches in New York’s five boroughs do every Sunday morning. But a hearing slated for tomorrow could change that.

Federal District Court Judge Loretta A. Preska will hear arguments in Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, which could lead to the eviction of all churches from New York schools.

The city is arguing that the use of a public school for religious worship violates the separation of church and state. But the churches say that if nonreligious groups can use public facilities, they should be allowed to do so as well.

Christ Tabernacle’s brick sanctuary was converted from a 1920s movie theater and takes up a whole city block in Queens, but when membership grew too large for the building to accommodate, the church leapt at the chance in October to use the auditorium at Bushwick High School in north Brooklyn.

“We were bursting out of our seams,” says Ralph Castillo, the church’s chief marketing officer. “Real estate is at a premium here. The high school gave us 800 more seats and they had classrooms.”

Now, 300 congregant meet every Sunday at the school, worshipping via video hookup from the main church.

New York’s school board had forbidden religious groups from using public school facilities since 1978, when a state court said Buffalo high schools could not allow student Bible studies on their premises.

But when the state allowed nonreligious groups to use school facilities, numerous religious organizations sued, seeking equal access.

One church, the Bronx Household of Faith, located seven subway stops north of Yankee Stadium, applied in 1995 to New York’s school board to rent a nearby middle school for its Sunday services. The board refused and the church sued, but Judge Preska sided with the board in a 1997 ruling.

However, New York schools lost two significant cases at the Supreme Court level: Lambs Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District in 1993 and the Good News Club v. Milford Central School District in 2001. In the latter case, justices said a New York school could not forbid a student religious group from meeting after hours on school property.

“It’s been like trench warfare in the state of New York to get the courts to follow the Constitution,” says Jordan Lorance, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys in the Lambs Chapel case. “The Good News Club case made them wonder: Why were they reversed twice? Maybe they should follow what the Supreme Court said.”

But Lisa Grumet, senior counsel for New York City’s law department, argues that worship services are far more sectarian than the student religious clubs.

“Given the diverse backgrounds of the children attending the city’s schools, the city is concerned about having any public school identified with a particular religion or congregation,” she says.

The Good News Club verdict provoked Bronx Household to ask Judge Preska to consider reversing her 1997 verdict. In 2002, she did so, citing the First Amendment. Her temporary federal court order allowed about 24 churches and a mix of other religious groups to meet in 1,197 schools in the city’s school system.

Bronx Household is now asking the judge to make her court order permanent. But the city wants the judge to rescind the order, saying the separation of church and state trumps other First Amendment rights.

It is not clear when the judge will make a decision in the case.

David Zweibel, executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, says he is mystified why the city opposes religious groups using schools during off-hours.

When his synagogue in New York sustained fire damage in 1988, the congregation found a nearby public school where it could meet while repairs were being done.

“The mere fact that the building happens to be a public school is not an inherent church-state problem,” Mr. Zweibel said. “We obviously are concerned about church-state issues and proselytization issues, but I have a harder time with the after-school programs that are directed at public school students on school premises.

“But even in those situations, with certain safeguards, groups should be permitted to gather, and certainly in situations of weekend and evening use.”

But the city says renting space to a religious group implies endorsement, even if the group prints a disclaimer disassociating itself from the school board.

The churches’ problem is that sky-high real estate prices make renting or buying property prohibitive for many small congregations.

If Judge Preska rules against churches meeting in schools, “We have a building, so we’ll just add more services,” Mr. Castillo says. “But these other churches, this is their bread and butter. You lock them out, they have nowhere to go on a Sunday morning.”

Mr. Lorance, the attorney in the Lambs Chapel case, points out that religious groups actually make up only a small percentage of those that meet at New York schools.

Mr. Lorance cites these numbers from the 2004-05 school year using statistics from the school district:

• On Fridays, the district issued 2,717 permits to groups ranging from the Girl Scouts to labor unions. Thirteen permits went to religious organizations: six Buddhist, six Christian and one Jewish.

• On Saturdays, 7,450 permits were issued. Forty-four of those went to 15 religious organizations: eight Christian, four Jewish, two Buddhist and one Jehovah’s Witnesses. (The board requires some groups to get several permits for one meeting.)

• On Sundays, the board issued 2,168 permits. Fifty went to religious groups: 35 Christian, 11 Buddhist, three Hindu and one Muslim. In some cases, multiple groups use the same building. For instance, the building used on Sunday mornings by the Bronx Household of Faith is used on Sunday afternoons by a Muslim group.

“There’s a lot of activity going on in the schools, and the religious use is a small percentage,” Mr. Lorance says. “They’re trying to make it sound like the schools are being overrun by religious services, which is not the case.

“These churches are going into some of the worst neighborhoods of New York City and helping people who are poor and have life-threatening problems. They are a benefit to the community. But the board doesn’t like these people using the Christian Gospel as their motivation instead of something secular.”

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