After using space in Sunnyside’s PS 150 on Sundays for six years, Grace Fellowship Church is one of many small churches throughout the city that may be left “homeless” after Sunday.
The ongoing conflict between religious organizations and the Department of Education has left city congregations, including more than a dozen in Queens, in limbo over the right to keep using public school buildings for worship services.
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn blocked a vote on a resolution that calls on the state to allow houses of worship access to school property. The City Council has no more scheduled meetings before the Albany legislative session ends this week.
Sixteen years ago, the Bronx Household of Faith sued New York City over a school policy preventing churches from holding worship services in public schools.
In December 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case. In February, the NYC Department of Education evicted more than 60 congregations.
But after a federal injunction, the churches were allowed to return to the school buildings until June.
As the case continues, pastors are seeking a permanent lift of the ban, as they hope to escape the end-of-June deadline on congregations’ access to public schools.
If the court does not act on extending the injunction, the churches will be forced out of the schools after Sunday, leaving small churches, like Grace Fellowship, unsure of how to proceed.
“There aren’t many other options in Sunnyside for a space with six classrooms and seating for 100,” Pastor Jon Storck said. “We aren’t trying to become a huge regional church because we are about the betterment of the Sunnyside community.”
Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) attended a rally on June 13, organized by Councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx), the bill’s main sponsor, supporting the “Right to Worship” resolution.
“Religious institutions have been in the forefront of the fight against discrimination, and now they are being discriminated against,” Vallone said. “We are just asking that they be treated like every other group.”
Despite the fact that the resolution has 31 co-sponsors out of a possible 51 members in the City Council, the future seems bleak.
“Right now it is not good. The administration is not going to change it’s mind and do the right thing,” Vallone said.” “Right now it’s looking like these religious institutions will be homeless.”
Unlike small churches in the borough that are left uncertain about what to do, The Journey Church already made the move out of Forest Hills High School in the beginning of the year as the conflict heated up.
The church, which operates in three different locations including two in Manhattan and one in Queens, now holds its Sunday service at UA Midway Movie Theatre in Forest Hills.
“It’s not as convenient a space. You have to be very creative,” Pastor Kerrick Thomas said. “Schools provide room more conducive to what a church service does on a day.”
More than an inconvenience for the parish known for its ministry work with runaway teens and prison groups has been the cost of renting the space from a private owner.
“The weekly expense jumps dramatically,” Thomas said.
Opponents of the resolution say the church and state are divided by a wall of separation, and Sunday service has no business being held in public schools.
“It violates the fundamental principles that our country was founded under,” said Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights). “The government is favoring churches.”
Dromm also said that although he is not opposed to a vote he “does not feel the need for that right now.”
Bill supporters, however, point out that the First Amendment provides that Congress cannot establish a state religion or make any law prohibiting free exercise of religion.
Dromm’s specific gripes regarding the issue include the government receiving funds from the churches at a subsidized rate, children becoming confused by people who hand out pamphlets in front of the school and only Christians usually being able to use the buildings.
“Faiths who worship on Fridays and Saturdays can’t use schools,” Dromm said. “Nobody else but Christians on Sundays can use it. That’s preferential treatment.”
Vallone said the issue of confusing school children about religion’s role in public institutions has been manufactured by the DOE.
“I challenge anyone to tell me about complaints that they’ve heard from parents,” he said. “I have not heard of any.”
Thomas also said he did not hear of any complaints from his time in the high school.
“The individual schools want us there,” he said. “They love us there.”
The uncertainty still remains as the deadline looms but despite not knowing where service will be held in the near future, Grace Fellowship’s mission will go unchanged.
“We will continue to invest our time, resources and our people for the good of the school and the neighborhood,” Storck said.