"More and more, this just smells like there's an agenda. My concern -- and this is why I'm asking for people in our denominational world to be praying about this -- I think this is just the beginning of what they want to do to the religious freedoms of churches in New York," Ray Parascando, pastor of Crossroads Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Staten Island, N.Y., told Baptist Press.
Crossroads, which met in Public School 52 for more than four years, held its last worship service in that location Sunday, joining about 60 churches -- mostly evangelical congregations -- in being evicted from meeting space they rented from the city's schools.
"Yesterday's service was emotional because we've invested the last four and a half years of our church there in terms of meeting, and we don't really want to leave but we've got to do what we've got to do. It was definitely emotional, but a good emotional.
"We believe God is sovereign over these things," Parascando said. "It was emotional in the sense of saying goodbye to the school, but we're still going to care for the students and do the things that we've been doing to care for the school."
Crossroads members were upset not so much that they were being pushed out of the space but "concerned that the mayor and the city of New York are discriminating against churches," the pastor said.
"You've got to be angry over the things that God would be angry about, and you've got to be angry for what is right. People had righteous indignation, like this needs to change because it's unfair and it's abusing our freedom of religion."
Next Sunday, Feb. 19, Crossroads hopes to meet again at the school, but not for a worship service because they're not allowed. They've asked the school system for permission to meet for a community farewell gathering in which they'll mark their time there and Parascando will share information about the church's future. The meeting would conclude with a brunch, he said.
After that, Crossroads hopes to meet in an abandoned movie theater at a cost of $6,500 more per month than they were paying at the school. But they're sort of in a bind because the schools have kicked them out and they don't yet have the city's approval to meet in the space they plan to rent.
"We're still waiting on the public assembly permit with the city to be finalized," Parascando told BP.
Not only is the new meeting space much more expensive, it lacks appropriate accommodations for the church's children's ministry. The pastor said they'll have to be creative in order to make it work.
Meanwhile, legislation to override the New York City Department of Education's ban on churches meeting in public schools appears stalled after the state Senate approved a measure 55-7 two weeks ago. A bill has been introduced in the Assembly, but Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, has not indicated he will schedule a vote.
Parascando said he spoke with Sen. Martin Golden, who introduced the Senate bill, shortly before speaking with Baptist Press, and Golden said the bill has a good chance of passing the Assembly if the members are allowed to vote on it.
If the bill could pass the Assembly, it still would have to go before Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and Parascando was not optimistic that the governor would sign the legislation.
Parascando believes the eviction from public schools is part of a broader attack on religious freedom in New York. He mentioned that three homosexual students spoke against a resolution supporting the churches at a recent city council meeting.
"It had no relevance because their argument was churches ultimately discriminate against gay people because we don't marry them," Parascando said. "First of all, nobody wants to get married in a school, I don't think. It's ridiculous. Secondly, it's our right if we want to choose not to marry a gay couple.
"Now what they're doing is saying it's a violation of the separation of church and state if we're allowed to meet in the school, and then they want to bring gay kids in and say the church discriminates because we won't marry gay people," Parascando said. "But that's our choice. So if they're going to mandate that we marry gay people, then that's a violation of the separation of church and state. You can't have it both ways."
A day is coming, Parascando said, when churches will be required to act against their beliefs.
"That's where this is going. I'm not saying it's going to happen tomorrow, but when bans like this pass, it shows that the abuse of power will go to any length," Parascando said. "That's what concerns me as a pastor and that's what should concern every Christian, and we should be praying against this. It's far more than meeting space.
"God is sovereign, but He wants us praying. There's no doubt about it. Every prayer helps."
Erin Roach is assistant editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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