A decision by the United States Supreme Court is causing controversy in Queens and throughout the city over the definition of the separation between church and state.
The court recently refused to hear an appeal by Bronx Household of Faith over the Department of Education’s controversial decision to ban churches from renting public schools for services. Starting Feb. 12, schools may no longer be rented for such purposes.
The Supreme Court’s Dec. 5 decision upheld a previous ruling by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals which was in favor of the DOE. The Appeals Court wrote that the policy “imposes no restraint on the free expression of any point of view. The exclusion appliûs only to the conduct of a certain type of activity—the conduct of religious services—and not to the free expression of religious views associated with it.”
Until 2001, religious groups could hold services in schools after school hours as long as they reimbursed the school for maintenance costs. However, when the Supreme Court ruled that a Connecticut church with a similar arrangement was violating the First Amendment, the DOE put its ban in place.
The ban has largely impacted small churches who use spaces like schools to hold services. Robert G. Hall, elder of the Bronx Household of Faith, said that losing school spaces would hurt his church and others like it in the long run.
“Our congregation is only around 100 people. Most churches like ours, some of which have vocational ministers, don’t have the money to keep up a storefront, and most just don’t have that large attendance at services,” Hall said.
He also believes that the DOE’s argument against groups like his is illogical: “The DOE says that our services would impact children and confuse them about religion, but this is only based on a few parent complaints. To institute this policy under the guise of protecting children is disrespectful to both children and the parents who should be teaching their kids about these things.”
The DOE’s ruling has received strong support from Mayor Bloomberg, but other city officials are not as happy about the decision. City Councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx) led a demonstration with religious leaders at Bloomberg’s State of the City address in opposition to the court’s refusal to hear the appeal.
Reactions among Queens lawmakers over the controversy were split. Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who sits on the council’s Education Committee, supported the DOE, saying that the agency had a right to deny religious organizations access to public schools.
“We have a separation of church and state in this country, and holding religious services in a government-owned building violates that,” Dromm said.
However, Councilman Ruben Wills (D-Jamaica), who co-sponsored a resolution with Cabrera supporting the religious organizations, felt that allowing schools to be rented for religious services would not have a negative impact on the community.
“These organizations are active in helping our community, and the city is going to punish them? It’s ridiculous that the DOE is acting so quick to enforce this regulation,” Wills said.
He added that the DOE “hasn’t entirely defined what ‘worship’ is, which is absolutely necessary for a rule like this.”
“The DOE is in a deficit; it makes no sense for them to ban any group from paying to use their space,” Wills added.