(RNS) Praise the Lord and pass the crates with the prefab pulpit and the
portable baptistery inside. The Forest Hills Community Church is moving into
P.S. 144 — sort of.
Every Sunday morning, the elementary school in Queens, like dozens more schools
in New York City and thousands more nationwide, is transformed into a house of
worship for a few hours.
There’s no tally of how many churches, synagogues and mosques convert public
school spaces into prayer places. But what’s clear is that there has been a
steady rise in numbers as congregations find schools to be available,
affordable and accessible to families they want to reach.
Critics, including some courts, are concerned that these arrangements are an
unconstitutional entanglement of church and state. They say these bargain
permits effectively subsidize religious congregations that would have to pay
steeply higher prices on the open market. They also note that the practice
appears to favor Christian groups, which worship on Sundays — when school
spaces are most often available.
Caught in the middle: congregations such as Forest Hills, which spent $3,000
for a permit to use P.S. 144 from February through June, and just renewed for
July and August.
For September and beyond, however, nothing is certain.
The city’s Department of Education, which has been trying for a decade to oust
the congregations from its schools and end the weekend worship practice, won
the latest legal round in June. As the case winds its way through more appeals,
an injunction allows about 60 congregations to remain in place and the permit
process to continue.
So Forest Hills’ evangelical founder and pastor, Jeremy Sweeten, still rises
early each Sunday, hitches up a 20-foot trailer and tows it to the school. The
trailer, packed by PortableChurch.com, has every bit of paraphernalia needed to
create a sanctuary and children’s Bible classes.
By 10 a.m., the Assemblies of God congregation of about 60 adults is raising
their voices in song and prayer. Then about 1 p.m., as swiftly as they came,
they’re gone, with every offering basket stashed and every Bible boxed away.
It’s a familiar scene in many communities across the nation:
— A USA Today look at the five largest and five fastest-growing school
districts in the continental U.S. found that all 10 had granted permits for
religious congregations to hold weekend worship.
New York City, the largest, is typical: Christian churches are the primary
clients because Muslims and Jews worship on Fridays and Saturdays, when school
spaces usually are used for student activities.
— The Acts 29 Network, a Seattle-based evangelical coalition that has started
350 churches across the nation in the past five years, estimates about 16
percent of these meet in school spaces.
“We don’t have a hidden agenda. Our heart is to serve the community just like
schools serve the community. … They’re designed for large groups, and they’ve
got parking,” says Scott Thomas, Acts 29 president.
— A 2007 national survey of newly established Protestant churches found that 12
percent met in schools, according to LifeWay, a Nashville, Tenn.-based
Christian research agency.
LifeWay Director Ed Stetzer said the major draw is that startup congregations
and expanding multisite churches can offer worship close to families’ homes for
a fraction of the cost of creating their own building.
However, Stetzer, who also leads church-planting efforts, said he sees the
constitutional dangers. Stetzer said he cautions school districts that they
will have no control over the religious preaching and teaching.
“So if a Wiccan coven (wanted a use permit), you would have to be as neutral as
you would with an evangelical church. Even Westboro (the Topeka, Kan., congregation
that pickets funerals with signs denouncing gays) could move in and you would
have no way to stop them,” Stetzer said.
In the New York City case, the city school board’s legal briefs argue the
practice “improperly advances religion” by, in effect, subsidizing the churches
with facilities below market rate. It also shows “favoritism” to Christian
churches as religions that don’t worship on Sundays are generally shut out.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In his June ruling, Judge Pierre Leval
wrote that the Bronx Household of Faith, ensconced since 2002 in P.S. 15, “has
made the school the place for the performance of its rites, and might well
appear to have established itself there. The place has, at least for a time,
become the church.”
The Bronx church is seeking a rehearing. Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the
Alliance Defense Fund, which represents the church, expects the U.S. Supreme
Court will overturn the ruling.
“Religious groups, including churches, shouldn’t be discriminated against
simply because they want to rent a public building just like other groups can,”