Churches and the Right to Worship in Schools

Pastor Erin Kerr and his church congregation have been meeting every Sunday since a few weeks before Easter for all the things a Christian church normally does – worship, a pastor’s sermon, Bible study for children, and fellowship.

There’s only one thing that sets Mission Hope Covenant Church in Tustin, Calif., apart from most churches in the U.S. They meet in a school.

However, all across the country a large number of new churches that are waiting on owning a building or a property, are renting out school facilities for Sunday services. So, it is no surprise that a recent ruling by a panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals that may bar any religious worship in New York City schools has Christians in the U.S. watching carefully.

In the last 10 years of being a pastor and church leader, Kerr has been a part of five churches that have held Sunday services inside schools. He said he was disappointed to hear about the ruling which determined that NYC schools that allow church services appear to promote a particular faith.

“It seems to be a biased ruling,” Kerr said. “It’s a bias against a church when other groups are allowed.”

The circuit court's decision last week that involved a Bronx church noted that "a worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church." In a 2-1 ruling, the court determined that New York City public schools can prohibit churches from using the facilities for worship services.

Though the court said its ruling does not constitute viewpoint discrimination because it is excluding a type of activity – worship services – and not religious expression, lawyer Jordan Lorence, who is defending the church involved in the case, argues that worship is an act of free expression protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Kerr said the opportunity to at least temporarily house a church in a school is invaluable.

“Getting that type of flexibility from a school facility is great. To have an area for a children’s ministry, worship area, and appropriate parking needs all with the proper zoning requirements, all at a reasonable price makes schools ideal for starting a church.”

He added that holding church services on school campuses goes beyond the physical compatibility. “There’s relational benefits as well. You have the ability to get to know the school staff and teachers and find out the schools needs, which are a representation of the community needs.”

Lorence said he does not see a national impact on churches being allowed to hold Sunday services, “at least in the short term.”

“I don’t have any reason for alarm,” he said. “However, there is something wrong with school districts that say ‘yes’ to other community groups and no to churches just because they have a religious expression.”

The Bronx church is appealing the decision.

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