Not long afterward, the pastors approached school administrators, asking permission for their growing home church to meet in the school auditorium on Sundays while they saved and worked to build a meeting place of their own. Local principals readily agreed, with one caveat: Department of Education regulations opened school facilities to all cultural and civic events and activities “pertaining to the welfare of the community” – except worship services.
The pastors, though, felt a church should be honest about being a church. They identified their purpose for meeting as “worship,” turned in an application, and got a fast, firm “no” back from the city. That was the beginning of a reluctant lawsuit aimed not at collecting money, but at establishing the right of religious groups to enjoy the same access to public facilities that other organizations are so freely given.
Currently, nearly 60 churches and synagogues are meeting in New York City public schools … in many cases, not because they want to, but because space and/or funds are not yet available for them to meet elsewhere. Many, like Bronx Household of Faith, have already made a tangible, visible impact on their neighborhoods – ministering love and compassion to children, refugees, shut-ins, the poor and homeless. In not a few of those neighborhoods, diminishing crime statistics give evidence of the good influence these congregations exert on their surroundings.
And yet: the Department of Education is adamant that the churches must go. Even though the congregations, just like thousands of other community groups, meet on weekends, when classes aren’t in session, city officials seem to live in mortal dread of what inferences young minds might draw from the knowledge that some of these people actually sing hymns and pray in their school cafeteria. In the words of Jordan Lorence, the Alliance Defense Fund attorney who has defended Bronx Household of Faith for more than 16 years, “It’s like faith is some kind of asbestos that will somehow poison the students.”
What children are more likely to perceive – especially those who attend these in-school services with their own families – is the very confusing message that this faith that sustains so many folks and brings them together to do good things is something that, for some reason, our schools and our government want people to avoid. And that these weekend visitors – old and young, families and singles, a mixture of races and dress styles and accents – are to be treated by different rules than other people in the neighborhood.
If the children’s curiosity is sufficiently aroused, they may discover that these ostracized people believe in a God who urges His own to treat others unselfishly, with kindness and generosity, humility and forgiveness. They may even recognize these “church-goers” as people who still cherish freedom enough to stand for it, against powerful forces, in the face of decades of frustrating legal setbacks.
If they grasp these things, they will understand more than many, many of those who have passed before them through our government-run schools, and who – like too many of those who control public education today – still have so much to learn.
Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor in the Reagan Administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal alliance employing a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.