That missing church-state angle in NYC

The clock is ticking in New York City for the many churches that face eviction under the court ruling that states that churches -- unlike other non-profits -- cannot rent space in public schools. Why? Because worship in a government space fundamentally and, one must assume, supernaturally, changes the nature of that space. Click here and here to revisit that situation. As one would expect, The New York Times continues to cover this legal tussle. Thus, we read, concerning the crisis affecting the Park Slope Presbyterian Church:

The issue of using public schools for religious services has been a matter of debate for decades. Because of a recent federal court ruling that upheld a city policy of not allowing religious services in public schools, dozens of congregations throughout New York have been told that they must move; next Sunday will be the last time they will be allowed to rent space in schools for services.

The Park Slope church got a head start when space at a nearby parish became available. Nonetheless, congregants expressed mixed emotions on Sunday about having to leave the only place the church has called home since it started eight years ago.

The Rev. Matthew Brown, the church’s pastor, described his feelings after the service as “sadness, disappointment.” But he quickly injected a bit of Christian optimism: “There’s a part of me that’s excited.”

As you would expect, the very next thing offered in this hard-news report is a summary of the controversy behind the scenes.

The debate over churches in schools has been passionate and has provoked harsh exchanges.

Opponents say that the congregations are violating the separation of church and state, causing confusion among children who attend the schools, and that they are trying to impose their beliefs on others in a city known for its religious and cultural diversity.

Supporters argue that they use the schools only when students are not around and that the buildings represent nothing more than a physical space in which they can gather.

Some churches are holding out hope that the Legislature will intervene.

Now, if you read that passage carefully it is hard not to think that the Times assumes that this story has two sides.

On one side are those who favor the separation of church and state. On the other side are people who -- it's hard to be specific about this -- want to rent government space instead of space elsewhere.

So this is a fight between those who favor church-state separation and those who, apparently, do not.

The problem is that people on both sides are concerned about the separation of church and state. The legal teams behind the churches and their claims are arguing that the New York school executives are, through their actions, becoming unnecessarily entangled in religion by singling out religious worship as a uniquely dangerous form of speech and symbolic activity. The schools are thus violating the "equal access" principles that have been upheld in other parts of the nation. These legal guidelines were produced by a massive coalition of liberal and conservative religious leaders back in the right-wing days of the Clinton White House.

As I wrote for Scripps Howard not that long ago:

At the heart of the debate is a 2001 Supreme Court decision -- Good News Club vs. Milford Central School -- that instructed educators to offer religious groups the same opportunity to use public-school facilities as secular groups. School leaders can elect to close their buildings to secular and religious groups alike, thus avoiding discrimination.

Now, the Second Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals has challenged this status quo. In a 2-1 decision, it backed New York City school board attempts to ban regular worship services in its facilities, while allowing for some other forms of religious expression by religious groups.

In other words, if would violate church-state separation for school officials to treat religious groups BETTER than other non-profits. However, it would also violate church-state separation for school officials to treat religious groups WORSE than other non-profit groups by acting as if religious speech and religious actions are more dangerous than other forms of speech and other actions by comparable groups (think labor unions, chess clubs, art classes, book circles, etc.).

The goal is to avoid "viewpoint discrimination" and to treat various non-profits the same. The goal is equality before the law, in other words.

Thus, it would behoove the Times to attempt to treat both sides of this story in a similar manner in its coverage. Church-state issues are very complex and, in this case, there are church-state concerns on both sides. It would help if the world's most powerful newspaper used an accurate and balanced manner in covering this story. The bottom line: This is not a story of pro-church-state-separation people vs. anti-church-state-separation people.

You can see echoes of these arguments in this passage of the story, as well.

City officials have said that many congregations that worship in schools are in affluent neighborhoods and have members who are working professionals. And despite the rule against worship services, “religious congregations are able to use public school space for after-school programs and a host of other activities and events,” Jane Gordon, a lawyer for the city, said in a statement.

Once again, the point seems to be that, in worship, the words and actions of religious worship are uniquely dangerous in comparison to the words and actions of other groups. Who is making that claim? The state.

Am I saying that the Times should FAVOR this competing church-state argument? Of course not. I am saying that this is a debate in which church-state concerns are found on both sides. It would help if readers were allowed to know that.

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