Instant Churches Sprout in Public Schools, Skating Rinks

More public places transformed into Sunday house of worship

Churches are holding worship services in public places with greater regularity than some might think. It is not uncommon today to see portable church signs outside public buildings and schools on Sundays.

Thousands of believers today are gathering more often in public schools, skating rinks, parks and empty buildings to avoid the financial burden.

As additional housing opens and property rental fees go up, churches often rent non-traditional spaces until they can build a permanent facility or develop a congregation large enough to support one.

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However, some Americans continue to fight over the place of religion making the debate between church and state one of the more recent battlegrounds in the public forum.

Critics, including the courts, are concerned that making arrangements for churches to worship in public places is unconstitutional.

One such case involves a religious group in New York’s Bronx borough that is fighting to use a local school for Sunday religious services.

New York City officials recently said churches that meet in public schools must leave by the end of the school year. The announcement is bringing the issue back into the news again.

The decision came after the Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled 2-1 last month that churches meeting in schools are unconstitutionally converting the schools into state-sponsored Christian churches, basically barring worship services from public buildings.

Some church advocates worry that the decision will spread to other parts of the country and prohibit church planters from keeping their doors open to Christians.

The justices wrote that it is "reasonable for the board to fear that allowing schools to be converted into churches might foster an excessive government entanglement with religion that advances religion."

Meanwhile, the Alliance Defense Fund, the Christian legal group representing the Bronx church, says it is appealing the court's ruling.

"Religious groups, including churches, shouldn't be discriminated against simply because they want to rent a public building just like other groups can," ADF Senior Counsel Jordan Lorence said in a statement.

"The idea that people of faith may be singled out for discrimination is flagrantly contrary to the U.S. Constitution," he said. "The 2nd Circuit greatly erred by not putting an end to the board's continued defiance of the First Amendment."

Taking opposition to Lorence's position, members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation believe the principle of separation between religion and government is really a very simple concept.

“In recent years, the courts have adopted tortured reasoning to justify unions between church and state. Good for the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals for applying some brakes on the misuse of public schools for religious worship services,” they said in a statement supporting the ruling.

Judge John Walker said a 2001 Supreme Court decision allowed another Christian group to use the after-hours facilities of another school in New York State for Bible study and other activities.

“After-hours use of public school premises did not undermine the government’s neutrality in religious matters,” Walker said in his ruling.

“Rather, he argued, preventing such use would have a chilling effect on free speech.

A recent study looked at the five largest and five fastest-growing school districts in the nation and found that all granted permits for religious congregations to hold worship services, according to USA Today.

Kendra Malloy, marketing director for Portable Church and Church in a Box, told reporters that the New York court ruling may have been a "warning shot" but she doesn't expect it will be the trend in court decisions.

The company estimates there are about 24,000 trailer-stored churches across the country and Canada.

If the New York courts were to ask Pastor Dustin Boles of Mosaic Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., about worshipping in public places – he would probably say it keeps the church focused on ministry.

Mosaic Church began a little more than three years ago with just 19 people on board. Now it has more than 1,500 members.

The church is built within a 24-hour period every week inside a giant skating rink. An empty floor space is instantly transformed into a place of worship.

Parking signs, podiums, a stage, hundreds of chairs, and a PowerPoint screen are just some of the items that are pulled out by a team of workers for worship every weekend.

Boles is a man that doesn't look like a typical pastor. His message isn't typical either.

"We kick the front door off the church," Boles said.

"There's a lot of front doors on churches. You have to be a certain type of person, dress a certain way, not have a past and that pretty much shuts the door. We have just tried to open the door and let people in."

He said using a public building for worship simply works.

“We have on site storage, an office, and almost unlimited usage during the weekend and pretty liberal use during the week.”

The unconventional pastor said the members have committed to be a debt free church.

“The lease of an already existing facility keeps costs low,” he said.

“It is very much non-churchy. It is casual and disarming to those who have had not-so-good experiences in church. And, it keeps us focused outward and not on keeping up ‘our beautiful building.’”

Another success story involves the new Champion Life Church in Chippewa, Pa.

The auditorium at Blackhawk High School is converted into a place of worship every week complete with live music and interactive media technology to encourage believers.

Pastor Larry Bettancourt and his wife Kim are the founding members of the church.

Eventually, Bettancourt hopes to leave the high school some day where the church pays a variable monthly custodial fee, based on hours and personnel to the school district.

He said the church developed a 45-person launch team, drawn from various communities across Beaver County.

“We drew 94 people to a ‘preview service’ before Easter weekend. We will see where we go from there,” he told the Beaver County Times.

Non- traditional worship sites are popping up all over the country including the Dominion Fellowship Church, which holds Sunday services at Rymfire Elementary school every Sunday, Palm Coast Christian Church worships at Buddy Taylor Middle School, Lighthouse Bible Church calls Belle Terre Elementary home, The First AME Church of Palm Coast used to meet at Old Kings Elementary before it moved to the African-American Cultural Center and the Church on the Rock used to meet there too.

Advocates for the use of public buildings and schools to be used for worship say local facilities across the country rent their spaces out to government meetings, campaign fundraisers, and other activities that usually don’t have anything to do with education.

Mike Harris, the lead pastor and cultural architect of The Journey, a 4-year-old faith community in the northern suburbs of Detroit, said he knows why some public schools are kicking churches out on the street.

He said churches have constitutional rights to rent public buildings.

"The high school, middle school, or elementary school facility that you want to lease in most cases will never see the money from your lease," he said.

"The money goes directly into the district office. If you take away this little carrot, what incentive would any school have for leasing their building to you? Not much, actually. As a result, more and more schools are saying ‘no’ or limiting the lease to three months, which is basically the same thing as saying ‘no.’”

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