Appeals court: NYC churches can meet in schools (for now)

Baptist Press
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Posted: Mar 01, 2012 6:22 PM
Appeals court: NYC churches can meet in schools (for now)
NEW YORK (BP) -- New York churches gained a victory in the courts yesterday (Feb. 29) as the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a district judge's injunction against the city's enforcement of a ban to keep churches from meeting for worship in public schools.

The Second Circuit, though, instructed U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska to act quickly on the case, encouraging her to issue a final decision by mid-June so the matter can be resolved before the next school year.

While churches can continue to meet in New York City schools at least through the end of this school year, some already have moved on to more reliable space.

One Southern Baptist congregation in the city moved all three of its campuses out of public schools, and another congregation is sharing its rented meeting space with other churches in an effort to support the body of Christ in New York.

The Journey Church has three campuses in New York -- an Upper West Side campus in Manhattan, a Village campus in Manhattan and a Queens campus. All three were meeting in public schools before the legal wrangling intensified early this year.

Now the Upper West campus is meeting in the Directors Guild of America New York Theater on 57th Street. The Village congregation has temporarily moved to a United Methodist church for an evening service, and in Queens, Journey has moved to a United Artists movie theater.

"We're paying a little over double the rent we were paying before, so that definitely affects our budget a great deal," Kerrick Thomas, pastor of the Upper West and Village campuses, told Baptist Press.

"We're looking at different meeting location options, and we're looking at the possibility of bringing our two Manhattan campuses together in one central Midtown location and doing all four services in one place," Thomas said.

Journey's leaders hope the city's ban will be overturned but they're taking their time and waiting to see where God wants them, Thomas said.

"It would depend on what kind of stability the decision has with it," he said. "We wouldn't want to go back to the schools and the next month have to go somewhere else. We'd rather find a place with stability."

Thomas said Journey's members have been frustrated by the city's actions against churches, especially because it feels like discrimination.

"For our staff, there's been some added stress. Not necessarily knowing where we're going to meet has forced us to trust God," Thomas said. "It has given us the opportunity to communicate to our church the core values of the church and that the church is more than where we meet, it's the people.

"It's been a challenge, but we also know that God grows us through those challenges. What we've been telling our church is that we don't know what God is doing yet but He's in control, and it's through tribulations like this that He grows our faith and strengthens us," he said. "We can't wait to see what God is going to do through this."

On Easter, Journey will mark 10 years since it began as a Southern Baptist church plant in New York in the shadow of 9/11. The three campuses have a combined attendance of nearly 1,000 people each Sunday.

Thomas said Journey is blessed to have resources to meet in alternate locations when schools are not available, but some churches have had to cease meeting because New York is so expensive and meeting space is hard to secure.

"The biggest hit are ethnic churches that don't have a lot of funds," Thomas told BP. "To ask them to double or triple their budgets for meeting locations, that's not an option. So there are some churches that are meeting in homes, there are some church plants that thought this was the death knell and they decided to close their doors -- not many, but that's happened.

"Without schools being available, it does raise a church planter's budget," he said. "It doesn't mean you can't start a church in New York, but schools do give a lot more options to church planters."

GALLERY'S OPEN DOORS

The Gallery Church, a six-year-old Southern Baptist congregation in New York, is sharing its rented meeting space with a Korean church that had been meeting on the campus of New York University and with an Australian church plant.

The two churches were planning to start meeting in public schools before those plans became uncertain, and they're like several churches in the area that are not being counted in the number of churches affected by the ban because they were not yet in the schools, Kelly Love, executive pastor at Gallery, told Baptist Press.

Gallery rents two floors of a building at 1160 Broadway, and the two other churches meet on Sunday afternoons and evenings in the space Gallery uses in the mornings. The meeting space is available to other displaced congregations that would want to meet on Saturday evenings, Love said.

"Anyone who is in desperate need of a place to park their congregation, we want to serve the body," he said.

In fact, Gallery's leaders previously wondered why they were paying such high rent for their meeting space.

"When all the schools issues started happening, we quickly realized it was the sovereign hand of God that put us in this place and that gave us the ability to minister to the body of Christ in New York City and not just our congregation. With that in mind, we really want to use it for churches in a time of need," Love said.

Last May, Love was a businessman living in Alabama with his wife and two children when they sensed God calling them to move.

"We weren't sure where. Then about eight weeks later we ended up in New York City," he said. Through a conversation with Freddy T. Wyatt, Gallery's lead pastor, Love ended up on staff at the church last July.

"We came so quickly we didn't have time to raise funds, and our church is not at a point where they can fund us," Love said. "So I needed to get a fulltime job."

He was hired by a Fortune 500 company and now works in the financial district on Wall Street. Love hopes that in the next several months he will have raised enough support to go fulltime with Gallery.

Regarding the future of church planting in New York, Love said now is the time for churches around the world to commit to the strategic city.

"The dollar figures just went up for what it takes to plant a church in New York City," he said. "So now is not the time for us to regress. Now is not the time for us to tuck tail and run, so to speak. "Now is the time for churches who feel a calling to New York not to let the discouragement make them waver in their commitment but rather step it up," Love said. "We still need churches in New York City. We still have one church for every couple hundred thousand people versus what it is in the South or elsewhere in the Bible Belt. The need is more present than it ever has been."

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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