Hey Times folks! Can you say "equal access"?

On one level, the ongoing New York Times coverage of the church-state showdown over rental policies in city public schools has shown an admirable interest in the plight of specific churches that are struggling to find new homes. At the same time, it does appear that some folks in the newsroom may be aware that -- as I mentioned the other day -- this is a church-state showdown with two sides, with legitimate church-state arguments that favor the churches as well as the concerns expressed by city officials. Those concerns? It seems to be that worship services mysteriously, yet literally, transform physical spaces into zones that remain dangerously non-secular when later used for other purposes, a kind of holy heebie-jeebies effect).

You can see the two stories battle it out at the top of the (rather short) Times update from Sunday:

On the last Sunday before a city policy went into effect barring religious services in public schools, leaders of congregations around the city expressed a range of responses, with some taking a pragmatic attitude and others vowing to not give up without a fight.

Ed Schefter, the pastor of City Bible Church N.Y., which had met at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis High School on West 46th Street, said he had looked at 25 possible places to relocate and finally found an appropriate space at 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue.

“It’s a huge dance studio -- it’s beautiful,” he said. He said that the arrangement was only temporary because the space was not big enough for his growing congregation, but that it at least meant he did not have to worry about his church’s being homeless.

So there is the homeless church nod, a theme that will continue later in the piece.

But the key, once again, is the actual content of the legislation. You see, New York City is not the first place to debate these specific issues -- although one would not know that from reading the coverage in the Times. (If there is another, more complete Times story out there that I have not found, a story that addresses the specifics of "equal access" laws, please let me know. I will happily apologize.)

But for now, this is what we get in this short report:

The State Senate passed a bill last week that would effectively reverse the court ruling and allow the congregations to continue meeting in schools, but the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, has expressed concerns about it.

“The speaker believes that the Senate bill is overly broad,” Mr. Silver’s spokesman, Michael Whyland, said in an e-mail on Sunday. “We are looking for a narrow bill that tracks Supreme Court decisions on separation of church and state and establishment of religion and give lawful discretion to the city in making a determination on the use of their facilities.”

Overly broad? What are readers supposed to make of that reference?

However, if one backs up a few days to an earlier Times report, there are a few clues as to the actual content of this church-state news story. Let's look at a few specifics in that report, starting with this passage near the top:

The bill, sponsored by Senator Martin J. Golden, Republican of Brooklyn, says that congregations may hold services in schools when the property is not being used for school purposes. The bill would effectively undo a court ruling last year that upheld a policy of the New York City Education Department prohibiting religious services from being held in public schools after hours.

“This is about equal access,” Mr. Golden said from the Senate floor.

Oh. No.

It appears that if a Republican attempting to defend the churches spoke the words "equal access," which means (call it the "religious liberty" principle) that the words "equal access" must be mere spin. There is no way to know that equal-access laws are in effect elsewhere, roughly from coast to coast, and they were the product of an amazingly diverse liberal-conservative legal coalition during the Clinton Administration.

The whole idea, once again, is that government cannot discriminate against religious speech and symbolic action, thus acting as if religious activities are a uniquely dangerous form of human activity. Officials are supposed to treat religious non-profit groups just like other non-profits. There is no difference between a Baptist church sitting in folding chairs on Sunday morning and a book club for environmentalists filling those same chairs on Tuesday night. The goal is to avoid "viewpoint discrimination" that forces the state to become entangled in doctrinal decisions -- creating a church-state nightmare.

However, if schools and other public institutions choose to do so, they are allowed to ban ALL rental agreements with non-profit groups. It's an all-or-none situation, with no discrimination on the basis of content.

Now, let's see if we can see any signs that these realities are lurking -- like ghosts -- between the lines of the Times coverage:

“I think the way the Senate is taking it up, it’s seriously flawed,” said the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, Democrat of Manhattan. “It would open up the schools to anybody. It might include the Ku Klux Klan. If you’re going to do anything, you’re going to have to make the city make a determination as to what’s an appropriate use of the schools.”

In a spirited exchange with Senator John J. Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who is a sponsor of the bill, Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat of Manhattan, questioned whether the bill violated the separation of church and state. Mr. Flanagan said the bill dealt with free-speech issues.

Note the Ku Klux Klan reference. Yes, the passage of an equal-access law -- built on the Clinton-era model -- would suggest that unsavory groups would be eligible. And, of course, one person's unsavory group (let's say a Wiccan group applying for space in a public school in, oh, Colorado Springs) is another's brave religious or political minority.

Thus, it does appear that the New York Senate Democrats fear the sweeping nature of equal-access laws. They fear, in other words, the effect of a truly liberal and tolerant law -- in the old sense of those words.

However, note that the Times -- AGAIN -- has published language suggesting that the only potential church-state question here concerns whether churches and other religious bodies are allowed to rent public spaces in which to hold dangerous worship services. There is no sign -- AGAIN -- that anyone recognizes that the state is practicing "viewpoint discrimination" against these churches, renting to non-profits whose doctrines and practices are acceptable to state officials, while rejecting these uniquely dangerous religious folks.

The Times is covering a church-state battle in which one side is waving banners that say "free access" while the other side's banners say "viewpoint discrimination." Do the editors know that? Do they realize which side of this battle is the "liberal" side, as defined by that Clinton-era coalition of church-state separationists?

Just asking. Again.

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