By Stan Friedman
CHICAGO, IL (August 17, 2011) – A recent decision by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York has re-ignited discussion on the constitutionality of public schools renting their facilities to churches.
Roughly 50 percent of the nearly 110 current Evangelical Covenant Church plants meet in public schools, says Peter Sung, director of church planting in the Department of Church Growth and Evangelism. Other congregations have continued to meet in schools or rent other facilities due, in large part, to high costs of construction and maintaining a building.
Schools provide “an ideal space” for churches, Sung says. Rent generally is low, and the schools already have classrooms and auditoriums. Also, newcomers often feel safer going to church in a school rather than a church building.
Churches are the primary renters of schools because Muslims and Jews worship on Fridays and Saturdays, when school space often is used, according to a recent USA Today report.
The 2-1 court ruling issued June 2 upheld the New York City Board of Education’s policy that forbids schools from renting to religious congregations except during the school year. As a result, New York City officials have said churches meeting in public schools must find other meeting space when the school year ends.
The court’s decision stems from a case involving the Bronx House of Faith, which has met in a public school. It is constructing its own building, but the facility will not be ready by the end of the school year.
The decision overturned a 2002 lower court ruling that allowed the Bronx House of Faith and 60 other churches to conduct worship services in school buildings.
The majority opinion in the recent decision cited the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and stated 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.”
The court’s decision is not binding on other areas of the country and is contrary to other rulings in similar cases. Legal experts expect the U.S. Supreme Court eventually will decide the issue.
“From a legal perspective, I think the issues raised in opposition to churches in school are flimsy at best, says Rob Hall, vice president of Real Estate Services for National Covenant Properties. “Most court rulings state that simply renting to a group is not an endorsement of religion or a religious group’s mission.”
Sung says some Covenant churches have been forced to end their meetings at public schools. “They don’t give religion as the reason – they’re just priced out.” At times, local residents have voiced their displeasure that a church was allowed to meet in a school.
Policies on whether a school or the local board of education decides whether to rent to a church differ from district to district, says Sung. So also do the reasons schools give for whatever decisions they make.
“It ranges from ‘This is a Christian nation so you can use the school’ to ‘You’re a church . . . no way can you meet here,’ ” Sung says.
Sung, who has planted several congregations, says his last church, Queenswest Church in Long Island, New York, was turned down by seven schools before finding one that would rent to them.