Va. Churches Worry N.Y.'s School Rental Ban Will Spread

Churches in Virginia have expressed concern over a recent New York court’s decision to bar congregations from using public school buildings, fearing such a decision could spread to their state.

Kenny Bass, associate pastor of Sonlight Church, which meets at Great Bridge Middle School in Chesapeake, Va., felt that even in Virginia there was a possibility a similar decision would be made.

“You never know what to expect anymore,” said Bass. “We’re having a constant prayer … and we do not take it for granted.”

Bass believed that the central problem for both New York’s decision as well as a possible future decision in Virginia was a misreading of the “separation of church and state.”

“They have a total misunderstanding,” said Bass regarding proponents of New York’s decision, believing they have distorted the concept “from its original context.”

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case of a small Bronx evangelical group that wanted to use a public school building for its worship services. Although the Bronx Household of Faith had been worshipping at P.S. 15 since 2002, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in June that the Department of Education had the right to ban religious groups worshipping in school facilities.

Bass believes those who want worship services to discontinue in public school buildings after hours do not understand that churches like his pay rent.

According to Bass, Sonlight Church pays Great Bridge around $45,000 a year in rent in order to use their facility. Bass said “the amount of money” was part of a “strong working relationship” between various Virginia churches and public schools.

Charles B. Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education, said that decisions on whether churches can use public schools for worship are made at the local level.

According to Virginia law, religious and nonreligious groups have “equal access” to public school facilities “during non-school hours.”

“The denial of access to religious groups can constitute viewpoint discrimination in violation of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment,” reads Virginia law.

Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund and who was the attorney for Bronx Household of Faith, told CP that the Bronx decision was wrongly decided.

“No group or individual should be excluded because of the content of their expression, or the viewpoint they express,” said Lorence.

 “The Second Circuit's decision is wrong constitutionally and conflicts with at least five Supreme Court decisions because it allows a significant infringement on religious liberties and freedom of speech.”

Lorence did not, however, believe that Virginia churches that used public school facilities were threatened by New York’s decision.

“Most school officials in Virginia routinely allow churches and other religious groups to meet in their school facilities during non-school hours,” Lorence assured.

“There is little desire among them to start excluding churches from meeting in the school buildings.”

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