Despite some legal setbacks, pastors and church supporters in New York City aren't giving up the fight on what they say is their right to hold worship services in public schools on weekends, even if that means getting arrested.
On Thursday, approximately 200 people gathered in the Bronx to hold a prayer rally and protest against the city's decision to ban religious services from taking place in its public schools on weekends. Protesters gathered outside Morris High School, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg was delivering his State of the City address inside.
A New York Police Department spokesperson told The Christian Post on Friday that 43 people were arrested for disorderly conduct during the demonstration.
Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, was present at the event. He told CP that protesters were singing songs, praying and speaking through a bull horn, and that those who wanted to be arrested did so in an “orderly” way.
"It's a minor offense...and it's done to draw attention to the bigger issue of the church expulsions,” he said.
Churches have been able to rent space in New York City schools for weekend services for the last nine years. In 1995, the Bronx Household of Faith asked Lorence to file a lawsuit against the school district, which had previously not allowed churches to worship in its schools. In 2002 a federal district judge finally issued an injunction which said they could meet in a school building.
But in June 2011, an appeals court overturned the injunction in a divided vote, and on Dec. 5 the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review the case. Instead of kicking churches out of the schools immediately – because the Christmas holiday was fast approaching at the time – the school district decided to allow them continue having services until Feb. 12.
Now, Lorence says, churches are looking to Mayor Bloomberg to repeal the school district's decision. He estimates that there are about 60 churches that are currently meeting in NYC schools, and says that taking churches out of them would only hurt the schools and the communities they serve.
"I just think it's quite tragic that the school district would say that, 'We would prefer empty buildings on Sunday mornings than having these churches there helping their communities,’” he said.
A recent New York Times article said that New Frontier Church, a Korean-American congregation which has been meeting at Public School 11 in Chelsea for services on Sundays, purchased the air-conditioning unit for the school it rents.
Lorence says he also knows of a church that has painted their school building, and another in Staten Island that leaves its worship instruments at the school during the week for the children to use.
The ADF lawyer says he is concerned that this treatment of churches will spread to other parts of the country as well, although he knows that many school districts across the U.S. are supportive of churches using their buildings.
"I think that it will inspire some people to restrict churches...It gives validity to, I think, this false and wrong understanding of the establishment clause, that the government is under some sort of duty to go on a search-and-destroy mission for private...forms of religion, including private religious expression, and expunge it from the public square."
He says that people today don't have a good understanding of the First Amendment's establishment clause – which prevents the government from endorsing any particular religion – and stated that “accommodation of private speech is not sponsorship.”
Fernando Cabrera, pastor of New Life Outreach International and a New York City Councilman, attended Thursday's event and had previously been arrested last week in a similar demonstration.
“We have reached a situation where we're running out of time,” Cabrera said, explaining why he would go so far as to get arrested for the cause.
“When we got arrested we did have a spirit of what happened with Rev. Martin Luther King [Jr.], that an unjust law of this kind is robbing people of their constitutional right.”
He says it is “biblical obedience” to stand up in support of the city's churches, and likens the situation to when the disciples were told not to preach in certain places in the Bible.
The ban does not directly affect his church at this point – they have their own building – but he says that “if this injustice is happening to one particular person or group, it's injustice to all of us because we're all connected to one another.”
According to Lorence, if Bloomberg doesn't overturn the ban the state legislature may decide to do so, although he is unsure if that would happen before the Feb. 12 deadline.