The New York City Council passed a resolution Wednesday in support of Christians and other faith groups being granted "equal access" to gather for worship on public school property after hours. The 38-11 vote is seen as another sign of progress in a years-long battle that threatens the right of Christians and other faith groups to use such spaces to gather for worship.
"We had a huge, huge victory today, "Pastor Bill Devlin said of the "Right to Worship" resolution, according to World Magazine.
Devlin and City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, a Democratic representative of the Bronx borough, have been at the forefront of a grassroots push to grant churches equal access to public school space.
"Here you have the most progressively leaning Democratic city council in the entire U.S. And they vote by a huge margin in favor of the freedom to worship. … The Lord did this," Devlin reportedly added. He also shared on his Twitter account Wednesday, "Thanks to City Council (and) to God."
The text of Resolution 1155-2011, the legislation in question, reads: "Resolution calling upon the New York State Legislature to pass and the Governor to sign legislation amending the New York State Education Law to afford houses of worship equal access to school property."
The resolution, first introduced in December 2011 by Councilman Cabrera, passed Wednesday with a vote of 38-11. It was also been approved by the Committee on Education on Tuesday with a 14-5 vote. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, however, opposed its passage although she allowed it to come before the council for a vote.
"Speaker Quinn believes strongly in the separation of church and state as a critical element of our democracy," a spokesman told the New York Daily News ahead of the vote, echoing the concerns of other council members who also opposed the resolution.
"Our schools should remain schools, not houses of worship," said Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, a Democratic representative of NYC's upper West Side.
World Magazine noted that Quinn, currently in an election year, is a leading candidate for NYC mayor and, if elected, will "control education policy." It is believed she allowed the resolution to come up for a vote due to overwhelming support for the measure among council members.
A final vote count from the council's recent meeting had yet to be made available by press time.
Journey Through NYC Religions, credited with breaking the news on the resolution's passage, cited Councilman Cabrera, who is also a pastor, as saying on his Facebook page:
"Houses of worship should be allowed to rent just like any other non profit organization. The U.S. Constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and all citizens have freedom of speech in all public spaces, including public schools. It is ironic that the NYC public schools are currently renting from Catholic churches and they have no problem with it, and yet they don't want churches, synagogues or mosques to rent public schools. This is a double standard. We are the only school district in America with such a discriminatory policy."
The New York State Legislature is next to view the City Council's resolution, which calls for a reversal of the ban that prevents faith groups from holding worship services on public school property. If passed by the Legislature, NYC Gov. Mario Cuomo is expected to sign off on the bill, which currently only affects religious groups. Other groups, such as the Boy Scouts, neighborhood associations, or the Boys & Girls Club, are not affected by the state ban.
Despite the current victory, cited as "symbolic" by Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Jordan Lorence, there is still a federal battle waging in regard to the Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York court case.
In June of last year, the Bronx Household of Faith, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), was awarded a permanent injunction against the state ban by a federal district court judge. New York City appealed the judge's ruling, and until a decision comes forward, Christians and other religious groups who depend on school property as a gathering place have been assembling without incident. The Daily News estimated that 40 faith groups currently rent public school spaces to gather for worship.
According to the ADF, the Bronx Household of Faith's battle with NYC has been waging for 17 years, with city officials claiming the congregation's gathering for worship at empty public schools violates the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause. The clause prohibits the government from establishing any official religion, showing preferential treatment to any single religion, or favoring religion over non-religion or vice versa.
With the ban in place, "New York City remains the only major school district in the United States that prohibits private religious services in public school buildings during non-school hours," according to the ADF.
The presence of many of these churches that cannot afford their own buildings or find it more convenient to rent public school space have proven pivotal to the surrounding communities. Church members have been credited with providing school supplies to children of economically-challenged households, aiding disabled residents, and donating things like computers and air conditioners to schools.
"Churches that have been helping communities for years should be allowed to continue to offer the hope that empty buildings can't," Lorence previously told The Christian Post.
"The Constitution requires New York City to allow churches and other religious groups to meet for worship services in vacant school buildings on weekends on the same terms as other groups. It is tragic that the city continues its efforts to evict the very groups that are selflessly helping the city's communities, including the public schools themselves."