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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fight Over Worship at Schools Puts Bronx Church in Spotlight

The Bronx Household of Faith has held services in PS/MS 15 for the past nine years.
[Editor's note: This story appears in the latest issue of the Norwood News, which hits local streets today. Just a quick warning: this story is long and easily could have been longer. I'm planning a follow-up post to tackle some of the angles we couldn't fit into this original piece.]

By Alex Kratz

When the leaders of Bronx Household of Faith, an evangelical Christian congregation based in University Heights, first approached the city, in 1994, about using its public schools to hold worship services, they didn’t think much of it. They certainly did not think they would find themselves, 17 years later, fighting for freedom of religion and speech as part of a back-and-forth legal case that could end up in front of the Supreme Court.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Bob Hall, Bronx Household of Faith’s head pastor.

After being initially rebuffed, Bronx Household of Faith legally wrangled its way into the auditorium at PS/MS 15 on Andrews Avenue, where it has held services since 2002. But on June 3, a divided appeals court ruled the DOE could once again exclude churches from using schools for worship. That left Hall’s church, along with more than 60 other city churches, once again facing a daunting search for space.

City attorneys lauded the ruling. “The Department [of Education] is quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice,” said Jane Gordon, who argued the city’s case. “The decision is a victory for the city’s schoolchildren and their families.”

But Bronx Household of Faith and its robust legal team say the DOE’s policy unfairly singles out religious worship services and has vowed to fight on.

From the Village to the Heights

The Bronx Household of Faith was born in Manhattan in the late 1960s, inside a Christian-friendly Greenwich Village coffee shop. The church’s core congregants migrated north, first meeting at an apartment near Yankee Stadium and then eventually moving up to University Heights. From 1973 to 1984, church members congregated in the Andrews Avenue home of co-founder Jack Roberts.

From there, the church moved services around the corner on University Avenue, to Hope Christian Center, a group home, managed by Roberts, for men whose lives have become unhinged for various reasons. But they soon outgrew the center and the church began actively looking for a bigger place to meet.

Roberts said local church buildings were already being maximized and other rentable places were too expensive. That left public schools, where many organizations, including groups like the Boy Scouts, are allowed to meet.

In 1994, they wrote a letter to the Board of Education, asking for permission to use PS 206 on Aqueduct Avenue. When they were rejected, BHOF, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a newly formed conservative Christian legal group (“the ACLU for Christians,” Hall calls it), filed a lawsuit against the Board. They lost and then lost again.

In 2001, BHOF caught a break. The Supreme Court ruled that a Long Island school district’s policy of banning religious practices (in this case, a Bible study group) at its school was unconstitutional. After reapplying and being denied access again in 2001, BHOF’s lawyers filed another lawsuit claiming the DOE’s ban on religious worship was unconstitutional. This time, the judge ruled in their favor, issuing an injunction that temporarily (and then, four later, permanently) lifted the ban on religious worship at city schools.

Following the ruling that reversed the injunction, the DOE said churches will be allowed to continue meeting in city schools until the end of the school year, which is less than two weeks away.

The Case for Space

Doug Cunningham, the pastor of New Day Church, knows how difficult it is to find worship space in the northwest Bronx. When he opened New Day two years ago, Cunningham scoured the area’s real estate landscape.

“We looked all over,” Cunningham said. “Not just at church buildings, but restaurants, nursing homes. The most available space was in the public schools.”

New Day first held services on the campus of the Bronx High School of Science before eventually moving Sunday services to a cafeteria at the Academy of Mt. St. Ursula, a private all-girls Catholic school in Bedford Park.

Cunningham said it was “pretty troubling” to hear that the DOE will once again ban churches from public schools. “You’re talking about using a physical space on Sundays when schools are not in session,” he said. “I don’t see what the problem is.”

In their time at Bronx Science, New Day members did not encounter or interact with any students, Cunningham said.

Because churches, like any other group, pay the DOE a fee (Bronx Household pays $600 a month to PS/MS 15) to use their facilities, Cunningham said, “I don’t see the church and state issue.”

A Court Divided

The June 3 decision was split 2 to 1 in favor of the DOE.

The majority opinion, voiced by Judges Pierre N. Leval and Guido Calabresi, said the DOE was not violating the First Amendment because it “does not exclude expressions of religious points of view or of religious devotion, but excludes for valid non-discriminatory reasons only a type of activity — the conduct of religious worship services.”

Leval wrote that if the DOE did not ban worship services the public might see public schools as places that “serve on Sundays as state-sponsored Christian churches.”

In his dissent, Judge John M. Walker Jr. said the DOE’s separation of church and state concerns were “insubstantial” and said the DOE’s ban was “impermissible viewpoint discrimination against protected speech.”

Walker said the majority’s argument that the school transforms into a church during worship services “has the feel of rhetoric.” He adds, “Bronx Household’s services do not convert PS 15 into a church any more than the Boy Scouts’ meetings convert it into a Boy Scout lodge.”

The problem, according to Bronx Household and its lawyers, is that the DOE has decided to ban the activity of “worship services” when all the aspects that make up a worship service — “prayer, religious instruction, expression of devotion to God and the singing of hymns, whether done by a person or a group,” according to the ruling — are permissible.

Hall says that nowhere in his permit application does he call what they do inside PS 15 a “worship service.” So it would be up to the state to decide what is and what is not a worship service. Bronx Household and its lawyers say the state isn’t qualified to make those types of distinctions.

Jordan Lorence, the ADF lawyer representing Bronx Household, is filing paperwork for an appeal of the decision and said he thinks the case might ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court.

New York University law professor Sylvia Law, who specializes in Constitutional Law and civil liberties, said “it’s possible” the case winds up in the Supreme Court. “It’s a big question,” she said.

Law agreed with the majority decision, but understood the tension felt on both sides of the argument.
She said she was impressed that the judges took into account the fact (which Lorence did not dispute) that, after the injunction opened schools up for use by churches, worship services became the dominant outside activities taking place inside schools. (Lorence says the “domination of forum argument is not valid” because churches aren’t preventing other groups from using schools.)

Community Presence

The DOE allows community groups to use its school facilities for any purpose “pertaining to the welfare of the community.”

Bronx Household says it lives up to this standard. In the mid-1970s, Hall says the church provided aid to the growing Cambodian refugee population in the area. Today, when it has the resources, the church provides help — with the month’s rent, with a few groceries — to anyone who needs it, whether they’re a believer or not. (Members of Bronx Household recently launched a youth sports program, the New York City Christian Athletic League, that runs in local parks.)

Of course, they are evangelical, meaning they want you to become a believer and will actively try to sway you onto their righteous path. But, Hall says, “We don’t arm wrestle people to the floor.”

Outside of PS/MS 15 on a Sunday afternoon, no signs point to a worship service being held inside. Inside, when you walk through the doors, you can’t hear church songs or a sermon being given. The auditorium where Bronx Household holds services is upstairs and only accessible through a maze of winding halls.

Around 60 people attended Bronx Household’s worship service on this particular Sunday. It was an ethnically diverse mix of young and old people, families and single folks. Dressed casually, they listened intently and many took notes as Roberts gave his sermon. They prayed, sang songs and adjourned for coffee hour in the school cafeteria.

Like other Bronx Household members, Denise Hogan called the court ruling “sad.” “It’s not a good thing,” she said. “I think it defeats the purpose of what God’s trying to do.”

Two days earlier, PS/MS 15 parent Karla Brown had no idea church services were held at the school on Sundays. But she didn’t mind. Besides, she said, “They’re not doing anything with it on Sundays.”

Across the street from PS/MS 15, Bronx Household is building its own house of worship, complete with a sanctuary, classrooms and half of a basketball court. It’s probably years and hundreds of thousands of dollars away from being completed, but it represents the church’s commitment to staying in the community.

But Hall says even if the building were complete and they could move in tomorrow, the fight to allow churches to worship in public schools has become bigger than just their modest congregation.

Since the decision, Hall says he has heard from many churches that share Bronx Household's predicament. “We’ve been having a lot of ‘Hey, what do we do now’ conversations.”


  1. These churches are being discriminated. Any other group is allowed to meet, except them. This is not what the founding fathers of this nation had in mind. Where is tolerance that these liberal city officials talk about? Sad day in this nation.

  2. This is a close one. I'd have to say that at some point public facilities have to be simply be off limits for religious purposes.

    It's not the group at issue, it is the function they are using the public facilities for and the separation clause must be upheld. Teachers cannot initiate religious functions, even after school is out. So I see no problem prohibiting outside interests from initiating religious functions as well. Students, for whom the school was built, can do so. This is part of their socialization, and as long as all faiths or non-faiths are given equal access this is all fine.

    Now as an example, if this group wanted to use the school for an food bank or clothing bank outreach program that would directly serve the public's interest and they should for sure be allowed the use of facilities. But, their 'evangelizing' during such events should be limited to informing any patrons of the groups beliefs and other activities...not full-on proselytizing.

  3. Good decision. We need freedom from religion and that's what the founding father's of this nation stood up for.

  4. I'm an Athiest, and even I don't think the church renting the school on Sundays for worship service violates the 1st ammendment.

  5. Also an atheist, and let me put it this way.
    If the school rents out space, then someone is paying money, if money is scarce and this could supplement tax money from coming from the tax payer then great, but if its an excuse for favoritism then it is a vary bad idea...The Boy Scouts rent public buildings (for a dollar-bad idea), Farmers Markets rent school parking lots (for $100.00 good idea)

    We are all human's (with out slandering)so lets work for the good of all, and not just some!

    Thank you for listing-Joe

  6. Oh dear me...why don't they just go to a church in the neighborhood? Why do they feel compelled to create their own new church? Sounds very narcissistic to me....

  7. There is nothing in the constitution that speaks about the so called "separation of church and state". As a matter of fact, the constitution basically says that the State should not get in the way of the "church". The revisionist are trying to change the intention of what the founding father's intended.

  8. I don't think that they can really cry discrimination based on the fact that non-religious groups (e.g. Boy Scouts) are allowed to use the space. Were it a question of a group of one religion being granted access while they were not, then there would arguably be discrimination at work. However, the decision to refrain from allowing ANY religious group does not discriminate based upon religion, it merely maintains separation between the school system and any religious group or denomination, as it should.

    That this group chose to 'found' a church without having adequate space available is irrelevant to the question of their right to access. As I've seen on buttons and bumper stickers, 'Your lack of planning does not constitute my emergency.' In other words, their lack of space to worship does not seem to give them any kind of special entitlement to access. While it is indeed unfortunate that they have been unable to procure an appropriate space, perhaps the members of this group should take this into account in their consideration of whether the leader of the group is indeed qualified to lead such an organization.

  9. I belong to a congregation that is lucky enough to have a space of our own. I do think that our worship changes the space in a way that Boy Scout meeting would not, so I understand the city's point of view. On the other hand, I can sympathize with these congregations' need for space. I don't think that we can fulfill our need/obligation for prayer and worship by joining just any old church.


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