(Photo: Bronx Bible Church)
New York City officials are handing a local church an eviction notice this Christmas season.
The Associated Press reports that the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has asked the Bronx Bible Church to stop worship services at a public community center. The church began renting the Judge Sonia Sotomayor Community Center in September to service its growing congregation, but now is ordered to leave by Dec. 31.
"It felt like someone had punched me in the stomach when I heard the news," said the church's pastor Joseph Fletcher. "It was like someone let all the air out of our sails."
Fletcher said his church began its ministry 28 years ago at another building on its own. As attendance swelled, he said, the congregation decided they could better serve the Bronx by offering a second location more convenient for members. Given New York City's rental costs, he said his church quickly decided renting from the community center was a reasonable alternative.
"Both of our locations are in very poor locations," Fletcher said. "We're trying to minister to people most others have forgotten about. The biggest expense you have in starting a new church is renting a building. The nice thing about a public space is that it's easier to handle."
The new location started off strong, Fletcher said, with Sunday morning services in the center's community room attracting 40 to 50 people during peak services. The church’s community center location hosted a Thanksgiving food event, housed a junior church, a nursery and even a choir. But such progress is now loss after the NYCHA called Fletcher and told him his church could no longer rent the space given the result of The Bronx Household of Faith v. New York City Board of Education court case in June.
Robert Hall, co-pastor of The Bronx Household of Faith, said the decision means that any New York City public school can refuse to rent its classrooms to churches and other religious bodies. His church had previously rented a classroom for Sunday services, only for the city's Department of Education (NYCDE) to argue that any religious worship in a public institution might seem like endorsement of that worship by said institution. The NYCHA, Fletcher said, worries a similar problem could occur at its community centers.
The church's website said that the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan upheld that decision last summer, and now all churches must leave public schools by February 2012. Calls to both the NYCHA and the NYCDE were not returned by press time, and the Supreme Court declined to review the case on Dec. 5.
"Not allowing religious worship in public schools sets a dangerous precedent," Hall said. "This is separation of church and state far beyond what was intended by the original idea and could marginalize Christianity."
Fletcher said his church pays rent in a timely fashion, renting the community center space for $300 a week. Jordan Lorence, a senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund representing Fletcher's church, said his group is hoping to resolve the issue without a court date. All the same, he said he found the city's infringement on religious rights disturbing.
"I feel this is unjustified and very draconian," he said. "This isn't what the Constitution allows. There's nothing wrong, suspect or unconstitutional about a church renting a space for a weekly worship service."
Bronx Bible Church is remaining positive, Fletcher said, and his congregation hopes it keeps its current location intact. Regardless of the outcome, he said his church would remain positive as they preached in the Bronx.
"I've embraced the sovereignty of God in all this," Fletcher said. "There's nothing that will happen to our church without God's approval. We haven't given up hope that we're out of there yet."