The arrests came after more than 200 people gathered in the rain outside a Bronx public school where New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was giving his state of the city address. After singing songs and cheering speeches, protesters walked out in orderly groups of five to eight to kneel in front of barricades and pray. Police warned them to leave and then made arrests on charges of disorderly conduct.
The New York Board of Education has banned religious use of schools on Sunday mornings or at other times the schools are otherwise unused – even though the churches rent the space, dropping an estimated several million dollars per year into the city cashbox. If the ban prevails, more than 150 congregations will have to move to other meeting space starting next month – and that’s hard to find in New York City.
The week before, police arrested New York City Councilman and pastor Fernando Cabrera, pastor Bill Devlin, and five others on charges of “criminal trespassing.” Their alleged trespass was kneeling and singing two hymns outside the doors of the New York City Law Department. Police held them in custody for three hours.
The following day, the New York Housing Authorities reversed its position to evict churches that meet inside community centers. Board of Education officials stuck with their ban on churches, though, saying it will protect the minds of “impressionable youth.”
On Jan. 9 more than 100 persons from different ethnic, income and denominational backgrounds held a prayer meeting at Calvary Baptist Church in midtown Manhattan. The prayer event concluded a citywide week of fasting and prayer on behalf of pastors and council members who are working to overturn the ban.
Bronx pastor Dimas Salberrios said the ban would be particularly harmful in poorer communities: Churches in boroughs like Queens and the Bronx successfully battle crime and poverty, and uprooting them is “destructive.” He pointed to lower crime rates, help for the poor and homeless, and educational assistance for children as examples of what churches contribute.
The Bronx pastor, who has battled homicides in his own neighborhood and been held at gunpoint six times, has been on a hunger strike since Jan. 1 and says he won’t eat until the ban is overturned.
Attempts at a legislative fix are underway. New York Assemblyman Nelson Castro has introduced Bill A08800, which would allow “the use of school buildings and school sites for religious meetings and worship when not in use for school purposes or when such service or worship is deemed not disruptive of normal school operations.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tiffany Owens writes for World News Service, where this story first appeared.)