Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. – 2 Timothy 3:12
In a major blow to church services in New York City, the Supreme Court has declined to hear the an Appeal by a church in the Bronx that was seeking to overturn New York City’s ban on religious worship services in public schools. As reported earlier on Beginning and End, New York City, unlike many areas in the United States, has a serious shortage of space, due to its enormous population living on an island and surrounding boroughs that comprise a very small geographical area. Additionally, real estate prices are extremely high. Thus many public schools rent out their space for all sorts of non-educational purposes to various organizations (as an example there are several thousand groups who rent school space during off-hours — and only 160 churches who do so in the entire city). For churches, who may not have a great deal of financing, are new or just looking to relocate, this has provided an excellent resource. The services do not interfere with education as they are held on Sunday mornings, when no students or staff are present. Additionally the city makes revenue to pay for school operations. But now, as a result of this ruling, churches and all groups who hold worship services can be excluded.
“We’re very disappointed,” said Pastor Robert Hall of the 48-member Bronx Household of Faith, which has been pressing its case for 17 years. “We think this is a dangerous precedent that allows the state to make a distinction between various types of religious activity.” Following this development, churches will now have until February 15 to find a new location.
The Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, whose decision was in essence upheld by the Supreme Court, said the decision to ban churches does not constitute viewpoint discrimination because it does not seek to exclude religious expression but rather excludes a type of activity — worship services. “The exclusion of religious worship services is a reasonable content-based restriction,” the appeals court said in its opinion.
The court felt that by allowing church services on Sunday, the school was “dominated” by the church presence (even though in most cases, the church uses 2-3 rooms in the entire building) and that the school for that moment became a church, and thus violated the Constitution’s Establishment cause that says that the government cannot endorse a particular religion. Yet there was no evidence of any student, parent or person stating that the services made it seem as if the school was holding service and not the churches, who clearly delineate their names in their fliers and materials. Additionally, for Christians, worship service is religious expression.
As public schools in America provide foot baths and prayer rooms to Muslim students, and public high school football teams change their practice times to as late as 4:00 AM to accommodate Muslim students, it hardly seems reasonable that a Christian church using space on Sunday mornings when no students are present is a violation of the “Separation of church and state.”
As churches now have to scramble to find space, the Alliance Defense Fund, who represented the Bronx Household of Faith in the case, worries that this bad precedent may spread beyond New York City. “I’m concerned that other school districts that now permit religious groups to worship will reconsider,” said Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, who argued the church’s case.
A Potential Solution
Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera, whose district includes the school that house Bronx Household of Faith, is now pursuing legislation to take to the New York State Assembly, that will permit churches to continue to worship in rented public school space. “Although today’s news may be cause for some disappointment, the question now moves to the individual states,” Cabrera said in an optimistic statement today. “I have full confidence that our State Legislature and Governor will amend our education law to end the Department of Education’s exclusionary policy and allow our churches the same access afforded to other community organizations. This case was never about special treatment, it was about fairness and I fully intend to continue this fight until we see action.” On Thursday, December 8th, a press conference will be held at City Hall in New York City to announce the proposed legislation.
Regardless of the outcome, the important thing for Christians to remember is that God is on the throne, guiding all things according to His Will. Jesus said: “..In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33). The Bible promises challenges, trials and tribulation for all who are believers in Jesus Christ. But these are times that do not call for despair but hope and faith in God providing. The church was never meant to be a building. It is the body of believers who find their hope and salvation in Jesus Christ and their truth in God’s Word – the Bible. This is why The Lord Jesus stated: “..I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” The massive, stadium-sized churches in America are no greater than the dark, basement rooms where Christians in restricted nations like Iran or Somalia meet to worship and hold service. It is not the space that matters – it’s the faith of the believers that is important.
Pray for the New York City churches to find a new space or for the new legislation to pass so that they can remain in their present spaces. But most importantly, pray for the faith of the pastors, support staff and congregations to maintain their faith in Jesus Christ and not to be swayed by this temporary setback.
As this world moves farther from God, that persecution against Christianity will only increase. Let this serves as more motivation for New York City churches to shine the light of the Gospel and spread the message of eternal life and forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ with even more passion.
Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the LORD delivereth him out of them all. — Psalm 34:19