Churches Meeting in Public Schools: A Wise (and Legal) Decision

Posted on May 9, 2014 in Public Policy, Religious Freedom by

church meeting in public schoolDid you know that churches and schools used to meet in the same buildings?

Today some will claim such use of “government property” as unconstitutional, citing the non-existent “separation of church and state” clause that does NOT appear anywhere in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Despite their efforts the fact remains that churches and schools have historically sought to work together to share space in a mutually beneficial way.

Erik Stanley, writing at the Speak Up Movement blog makes this point clear:

“In the pioneer era, it was commonplace for church worship services to be held in public school buildings and for public schools to be held in church buildings. Indeed, it makes a great deal of sense for churches and schools to occupy the same physical space given that churches generally operate at times when schools are not in session and vice versa.”

Yes, it does make sense for churches and schools to meet in the same location, especially when the mutual benefits are considered.

For example, schools sit empty on Sundays, while churches primarily need a meeting place on Sunday. So instead of churches that are empty most of the week and schools that are empty on Sunday, the two can work together to make maximum use of space. This makes sense for at least two reasons: First, in areas where land is not readily available or where prices are high, churches cannot always afford to purchase land and/or buildings. Using school facilities allows young, new churches the chance to get off the ground and serve their communities without the burdensome cost of land and building purchases. Second, for those concerned about energy consumption, what could make more sense than using one building rather than having two separate buildings for church and school?

Before someone is tempted to argue that allowing churches to use school facilities would create a national religion, let’s consider this argument. Considering the fact that churches have been using school buildings for decades, does American currently have a “national religion”? No, of course not. America is one of the most religiously diverse nations on the planet. We are no closer to having a national religion than we are to having an official national food, sports team, or car.

This argument is really a straw man attempting to join a legitimate conversation about religious freedom. The fact remains that schools are public buildings in which groups, such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts hold meetings. And just as any group or club I allowed access to schools facilities, so too should churches be allowed to use public schools.

But the Bronx Household of Faith case in New York City proves that not everyone agrees that churches should be permitted to use public school facilities. Erik Stanley comments on this case:

“Alliance Defending Freedom has been representing the Bronx Household of Faith in New York City for close to 20 years. The New York City public schools established a policy that allows community groups to use school facilities but prohibits using them for religious worship. The case has bounced back and forth between the trial court and the appeals court in New York several times. In the most recent ruling, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the school’s policy excluding religious worship was constitutional.”

It’s strange to me that a government always talking about needing more money for schools would simultaneously block a revenue stream such as churches paying rent to use school facilities. If our schools are in such dire straights financially, why not open the doors to another form of income by allowing churches to rent the facilities on a day when nothing else is happening and the school sits dormant?

Thankfully, in the Bronx Household of Faith case, even though the court upheld the city’s ban on churches in public schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he will allow churches to stay in the schools they currently rent, a recent article reports.

“Churches across New York City were celebrating last weekend. Not only because it was Palm Sunday, but because, after a 19-year legal battle, they were allowed to stay in the rented public school buildings where they meet. Even though the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the city’s right to ban religious services in public school buildings in January, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he was going to allow the churches to stay put.”

While I have serious disagreements with Mayor de Blasio on a number of issues, I am thankful that we see eye to eye on this very critical issue. Churches benefit both the schools and the neighborhoods they meet in. Plenty of studies show that crimes rates go down while home values go up when a church is present in a community. The benefits are far ranging and should be celebrated by residents where a church is located.

In my home state of West Virginia, the most religiously diverse state in the nation, I can’t help but shake my head at some of the restrictions put on churches seeking to meet in schools.

Why does the Board of Education give a principal the final say in whether a church can meet in a school? If one principal is an atheist he can close the doors of the school with extreme prejudice and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it. That does not seem a wise guideline.

Why does the Board of Education in certain parts of the state require a church to have an active building committee and show that they are seeking another place to meet? I know plenty of churches that would like to meet in schools indefinitely, why do they need another place to meet if the school is already meeting their need?

Why does the Board of Education also require the church to renew their agreement with the school every year, or in some cases every quarter? Most churches that meet in a school plan to be there for several years, in the least, what is the purpose of requiring the church to renew its agreement so often?

These are troubling requirements that lead me to believe that our Board of Education is becoming hostile to churches meeting in local schools. While this is not the case at every school in the state, it is becoming more of a trend. West Virginia is notorious for needing money, and our schools are no exception, so why are schools and the Board of Education ignoring or threatening this positive revenue stream?

The fact remains that churches and schools are great partners. They mutually benefit one another in ways that no other entity can. To ignore these benefits and refuse to partner together is financially absurd, discriminatory, and illegal. The equal access clause of the Constitution assures churches and other groups that they will be allowed to use public facilities without threat or discrimination. Schools would be wise to invite churches into their facilities on a day when no one else is using them and create a positive partnership for the community.

Please give us your valuable comment


%d bloggers like this: