Schools biased against non-Christians?

In the fast-growing Bible Belt community where I live, it's not uncommon to see portable church signs outside public school buildings on Sundays.

As housing additions go up, churches often rent space in schools until they can (a) build a permanent facility or (b) develop a flock large enough to support one.

Since schools generally are empty on weekends -- and board members typically are eager to pump extra funds into cash-strapped coffers -- this arrangement seems to have worked where I live. I've never worshiped in a local school cafeteria, but if other folks doing so is the alternative to higher taxes, I can't say that I mind it.

Alas, given that churches renting schools has been the norm here for as long as I can remember, I couldn't help but chuckle at a USA TODAY headline this week:

'Instant churches' convert public schools to worship spaces

Stop the presses!

Seriously, I suspect that this came as news to some of USA TODAY's nationwide readership. And the paper did have a timely peg -- a recent court decision against churches leasing public school space in New York. Yes, New York City. The top of the 1,200-word report:

Praise the Lord and pass the crates with the pre-fab 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 for the nominal cost of permits and promises to make no permanent changes in the school setting. What's clear is that there has been a steady rise in numbers as congregations find schools are available, affordable and accessible to families they want to reach.

What's not clear to me is how that's clear. If there's no tally, how does USA TODAY know that there's been a steady rise? Where are the numbers -- any numbers -- to back up this claim? Later, we learn that the newspaper's survey found that the nation's five largest school districts and its five fastest-growing school systems all permit religious groups to hold services on weekends. But no figures are given on whether the permit numbers are up in those districts, and over what period.

Equally vague is the next section of the story -- the nut graf:

Critics, including some courts, are concerned that these arrangements are an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state. They say these bargain permit effectively subsidize religious congregations who 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.

Who are the critics? How are they voicing their concerns? How many critics are there? Are they all over the country or just a few folks in New York City? What do constitutional law experts say, experts on both sides of this very hot issue? The story fails to answer such basic questions.

As for the description of the arrangements as "bargain permits," how much do churches pay to rent schools? Do some schools charge more than others? I've read some reports -- in Nashville, Tenn., for example -— of schools that recoup only utility fees and related costs. But elsewhere, such arrangements seem to be a big boost for school budgets.

Here's the top of a Palm Beach Post story from last year:

There's life after the last bell: On a recent Sunday, Oklahoma-based's 9:30 a.m. service drew enough parishioners to fill the west side of Palm Beach Central High School's parking lot. Space rented from the high school may run five figures, but the school's state-of-the-art auditorium is a good fit with LifeChurch's JumboTron-like broadcast sermons and live music.

And when LifeChurch is shutting down its Sunday services and pulling its 26-foot trailer out of the Wellington school's parking lot, the Tabernacle Pentecost congregation's truck is pulling in.

"It can get interesting," LifeChurch campus pastor Larry Mayer said of the back-to-back ministries.

That's not the half of it.

Soul line dancing. A poetry slam. Pre-kindergarten graduation. A Sweet Sixteen party, wedding reception, family reunion: Organizations ranging from tutoring franchises to the How Ya Livin ministry are leasing portables, fields and auditoriums, pouring millions of dollars into school district coffers -- $3.6 million in the 2008-09 school year alone.

In some places, it seems, those "bargain permits" add up.

Another issue in some master-planned suburbs is that developers have marked off every piece of land in town -- for houses, for stores, for parks, for schools, etc. Some fail to allow enough space for churches, so residents are left to drive elsewhere or find an alternative meeting location closer to home, i.e., a school. In other words, this issue is not simply a matter of "bargain permits," and the New York case and experience don't necessarily translate to every place across America where churches lease school buildings.

As noted above, USA TODAY focuses on the discrimination angle:

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 being used for student activities.

Could the fact that more than three out of four Americans identify as Christians also contribute to that discrepancy?

All in all, USA TODAY did a pretty nice job of covering the New York angle. But the effort to expand that case to a national level and apply its specific situation to all 50 states seemed to stretch the facts without adequate sourcing or insight. (For a bit more context on the New York case, be sure to read tmatt's recent Scripps Howard column on this subject. The key words: "Equal" and "access," as in "equal-access laws," which do exist).

Video: Alliance Defense Fund video making its case against the New York ruling.

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