Churches and public spaces

Debate is brewing in New York State over whether it is lawful or even wise for a school district to rent public space, particularly schools, to religious organizations for use after hours for worship or other programming.

The New York City School Board established a policy barring religious groups from renting school property outside of school hours. A lawsuit trying to bar the policy failed in federal court. That policy is supposed to go into effect this week.

Church and other groups have taken the issue to the state capital in Albany. There legislation is pending that would bar a religious group from using school property after hours.

With a little more than a week before New York City stops allowing churches to hold services in public schools, some lawmakers, churches and faith groups are desperately trying to push through legislation that would allow the practice to continue, while the affected congregations look for new homes and ponder uncertain futures.

Advocates hope that a measure in support of the churches will be approved by the Republican-controlled State Senate next week.

“Our view is that these institutions have been using school district facilities for years, and following the same rules as secular groups, and that they should continue to do so,” Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senator Dean G. Skelos, the majority leader, said in a statement.

In the State Assembly, where Democrats are a majority, the outcome is less certain. Michael Whyland, the spokesman for the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, who represents Manhattan, said the speaker was “still in the process of vetting the bill.”

The proposed legislation is a response to a federal appeals court ruling last year that upheld the city Education Department’s rule against allowing worship services in public school buildings. The ruling, by the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, said that the city’s policy was not discriminatory, and suggested that allowing the services in schools might violate the separation of church and state, though the court did not make a definitive finding on that issue.

Advocates say that congregations should be treated the same as Scouts and other community groups that rent space from the school districts in the state:

“We’re taxpayers. We’re equal participants in our society. We just want to have the same access to the same public institutions that other groups have access to,” said Rev. Kirsten John Foy of Abiding Love Ministries in Brooklyn.

The City Council will discuss the resolution in another hearing before deciding whether to hold a vote.

Advocates are calling on the state Legislature to pass the resolution and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to then sign the legislation.

The editors of the New York Times disagrees.

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