A large majority of Americans consider it appropriate for public schools to be allowed to rent to churches and other community groups, according to a new study by LifeWay Research.
While those opposed to churches having access to schools willing to rent their space say doing so would violate a part of the Constitution addressing separation of church and state, 65 percent of those polled by the research group think differently.
LifeWay Research released the study as the deadline for banning use of New York City schools by churches is scheduled for Feb. 12. Up to 160 congregations that have used school buildings for worship services in the last year will be directly affected by the ban, which can be reversed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The mayor has not taken any action.
"Historically schools have been welcoming locations to churches, especially in larger urban centers where schools are in the heart of the communities," said LifeWay Research President Ed Stetzer. "A trend of banning church use of public schools could have significant implications."
The study found that two-thirds of the more than 2,000 U.S. residents surveyed agreed with the statement "public schools should rent to churches and other community groups," while 16 percent responded that schools "should rent to other community groups but not churches."
Additionally, 12 percent believe "public schools should not rent to any churches or community groups." There is also 1 percent who believe "public schools should rent to churches but not other community groups" and 7 percent are "not sure."
Katherine Stewart, a journalist and author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children, wrote an opinion piece published at Bloomberg.com that claims that churches renting from schools for worship and teaching space are part of a "radical religious ideology."
"Largely unbeknownst to parents, and poorly understood by school administrators, conservative groups within the evangelical Christian movement are carrying out an organized campaign to capture the hearts and minds of children and subvert the separation of church and state," Stewart writes. "Now, the battle is moving to the New York State Senate, which is considering legislation that would effectively grant evangelical Christian groups privileged access to the state's schools."
While Stewart and others claim schools and churches that workout lease agreements are in violation of the "separation of church and state," legal experts disagree on the modern usage of the phrase.
According to the historical preservation group, WallBuilders.com, the modern application of this phrase "bears nearly no resemblance to either its historical or Biblical origins." President Thomas Jefferson is the most frequently referenced American source for the separation phrase that came in his letter written to the Baptists of Danbury, Conn., in 1802.
Jefferson assured the Baptists that because of "the wall of separation between church and state" the government would not interfere with or inhibit their religious practices or expressions, whether occurring in private or public, according to WallBuilders.
However, in 1947, the Supreme Court reversed the traditional use of this phrase, for the first time "allowing the government to interfere with and even prohibit religious practices and expressions, especially when occurring in public – a complete reversal of the historic meaning of the phrase and its usage both by Jefferson and those in previous centuries," WallBuilders states on its website.
In New York, the Alliance Defense Fund has been working to help any displaced churches maintain their legal rights to worship in schools and community centers.
In a recent interview with The Christian Post, ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman took issue with those who say children are being indoctrinated by Christians inside schools.
"The atheists claim that children shouldn't be exposed to religious views, but anti-religious views are apparently fine," he said. "Our children will be taught someone's morality, the question is simply whose will it be?"
The LifeWay Research study also found that Republicans (84 percent) are the most likely to select "public schools should rent to churches and other community groups" while Democrats (47 percent) are the least likely, with Independents (67 percent) falling between the two parties.
Democrats (32 percent) are the most likely to select "public schools should rent to other community groups, but not churches," while Republicans (2 percent) are the least likely with Independents (10 percent) falling between the two parties.
Republicans (8 percent) are the least likely to select "public schools should not rent to any churches or community groups."
Methodology: The online survey of 2,019 adult Americans was conducted between Jan. 20-24, 2012, using an online panel representative of the adult population of the U.S. Slight weights were added to region, party, age, race, religion, gender, and education to more accurately reflect the population. The sample provides 95 percent confidence that the sampling error does not exceed +2.2 percent. Margins of error are higher in subgroups.