Editorial: Evicting religion

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 31 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

In January, more than 200 pastors and church members gathered to sing hymns and say prayers outside a public school in the Bronx after a New York City Department of Education decision to ban religious groups from renting space in public schools for Sunday services.

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Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City commanded headlines for several months last year. But a smaller, yet no less important, protest in the Big Apple recently went largely unnoticed by the mainstream media.

In mid-January, more than 200 pastors and church members gathered to sing hymns and say prayers outside a public school in the Bronx in which Mayor Michael Bloomberg was giving his State of the City address. Forty-three were arrested, including several pastors and a city councilman.

They were protesting two things. First, a New York City Department of Education decision to ban religious groups from renting space in public schools for Sunday services — even though the schools would otherwise sit unused on Sunday mornings, and even though the churches currently pay to use the space.

Second, they were protesting a similar decision by the city's housing authority, which sought to prohibit churches from using community centers in public housing projects. In both cases, only religious groups would be subject to discrimination, with non-religious community organizations allowed access to the facilities.

After the protests (and meetings with lawyers representing the churches), the housing authority agreed to allow churches to continue using space at housing projects. But the Department of Education dug in its heels and is still refusing to budge.

If New York lawmakers can't find a legislative fix, approximately 60 congregations will be out on the street as of Feb. 12.

The decision is unfortunate for many reasons. It will harm the communities in which these churches operate, particularly low-income areas in which churches are on the front lines of battling crime and poverty. The congregations also provide service to the schools they rent from. For example, one purchased an air conditioning unit the school uses, another painted the school building, and a third leaves its worship instruments at the school so children can use them during the week.

The schools don't want the churches thrown out. The decision is purely ideological and comes from an out-of-touch city department that clearly doesn't understand how these congregations function in their communities.

The city's Department of Education justifies its decision by saying it is protecting "impressionable youth" from associating a religion with their school. Yet city policy still allows schools that lack classroom space to rent from synagogues or churches.

Moreover, if the department was really concerned with protecting children, it wouldn't be evicting community partners that are deeply involved in addressing gang violence, drug abuse and crime problems in those very schools. A New York Law Department's statement calling the decision a "victory for the city's school children and their families" is profoundly ironic.

It is also unclear why the "impression" created by churches meeting in schools poses such a threat to New York's young minds. Indeed, the entire logic of the Department of Education's policy indicates a flawed understanding of the First Amendment, which was written precisely to protect religion from government overreach. Religious accommodation is not the same thing as religious establishment.

But perhaps even more troubling than the lack of understanding of the First Amendment is the lack of understanding of religion more generally. Increasingly, the irreligious in America treat religion as a problem, as a suspect institution that inhibits progress by keeping people from thinking for themselves and that should be kept entirely separate from the rest of society. There is little respect for the quiet but important ways in which religious organizations heal communities and families, serve the needy, create social capital, teach good citizenship, fight crime and violence and promote a host of pro-social and ethical behaviors.

Those who have false conceptions of religion that do not correlate with reality can cause great harm through their misguided efforts to scrub a religious voice and presence from public spaces. Just as evicting churches from schools in New York City will hurt the communities in which those churches function, evicting religion from the public square hurts the country. Religious people must continue to stand up to bullying and claim their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

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