As of February 12, 60 religious groups that were using school buildings after hours to assemble will no longer be able to do so. Many of these groups operate in Hispanic neighborhoods, where in addition to religious activities they provide valuable community programs.
New York City made this decision based on the constitutional principle of separation between church and state. The City claims that allowing the groups to use public buildings-where they pay below-market prices to rent-can lead residents and students to believe the school as a church. It can also create the perception that the school and the City support the congregation’s messages and ideas. The City allows non-religious community groups to use school buildings to meet.
While we understand the legal argu- ment, there is no apparent evidence that this fear can become a threat. Historically, many religious groups have been strong government allies in providing services to the poor. Among immigrants, these groups play an important role, as they tend to help build communities and develop political capital.
Group leaders say they will be unable to pay market prices to rent space and are at risk of losing their community services, including afterschool programs, youth counseling, and food pantries.
New Yorkers pride ourselves on following the law, but also on our sense of social justice and pragmatism. Once classes end and students, teachers and staff leave, what remains are empty buildings. In this sense, the school is not the building. If perception is the issue, it would be enough to have large signs clarifying that neither the City nor the Department of Education support the specific group’s beliefs or agenda. Amd it can be made clear what religious groups can or cannot do.
In this economy, when the City is having a hard time providing services to its poorest residents, it makes no sense to take this puritanical position. The City should reverse its decision and let religious organizations do what they have always done. Otherwise, the state Legislature should pass a bill to void this mandate, since New Yorkers know the difference between a school and a church.