In comments on April 8, Mayor Bill de Blasio continued on a path toward keeping regular Sunday worship services in public schools, despite a federal appeals court ruling last week that upheld a longstanding Department of Education (DOE) ban on such services. The mayor's opposition to the policy that the court said the schools can now enforce will likely entail his formally doing away with it. Until the April 3 ruling from the US Second Circuit Court of Appeals, legal challenges by Bronx Household of Faith had kept the ban unenforced dating back well over a decade.
In response to a question about all the problems with church congregations holding regular worship services in the public schools identified in 2005 sworn testimony from Carmen Fariña, who is now de Blasio’s schools chancellor and has been muzzled by him on the issue, the mayor said, “I’ve said very clearly what I believe –– that a faith-based organization has a right like anyone else waiting in line their turn, paying the same amount as any other organization to use that space. We will as a result of the court decision update our rules and will refine our rules to make clear some specific parameters.”
Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, a fundamentalist pastor who has led the fight to keep churches in schools, told the Daily News he is “very confident” de Blasio will make an announcement this week on keeping the worship services in the schools.
Fariña, in her 2005 affidavit made in her role then as deputy chancellor, was emphatic that regular worship in school buildings was extremely problematic and “violates the separation of church and state.” She said, “DOE is concerned that some children or their families may feel less welcome at their school if they identify the school with a particular religion or congregation.”
Fariña also said, “Young children who see that a church or other religious institution is using the school as the place for its regular worship services, or who themselves attend the services, could easily and understandably conclude that the religious institution is supported by the school… Given the importance of schools in children’s lives, it is critical that schools not be perceived as supporting any particular religion or congregation.”
De Blasio said, “I want to just emphasize that any organization of any faith can apply for space and I think that’s important to understand.”
In her affidavit, however, Fariña noted that opening school space to regular worship favors Christian congregations over others because they worship on Sunday mornings when auditoriums are most likely to be empty. School space is heavily used for academic and extracurricular activities on Saturday mornings, when Jews observe the Sabbath, and schools are in session midday on Friday, when Muslims worship.
Fariña said, “At least one school has actually been in the position of granting a permit for regular Christian worship services on Sundays; and rejecting a request to use the school for Jewish worship services on Saturday, because of the school’s Saturday academic programs.”
Fariña argued there is no way of avoiding the appearance of favoritism toward a particular religion.
“No disclaimer can dispel the notion in the community that the school building has taken on the attributes of a church, or that DOE is subsidizing religion,” she said.
Fariña also noted the inherent conflicts between a school’s public obligation for educating the city’s youth and its use as a sectarian place of worship.
“Once a school becomes the primary place of worship for a congregation, community members may hold school officials responsible for the congregation’s actions,” she said. “School officials can be put in the position of having to respond to the congregation’s proselytizing activities. Again, this concern is not theoretical. For example, I have been advised of a situation at M.S. 51 in Brooklyn, where a church gave free refreshments to children during the school day and invited them to the church’s services at the school; and an incident at P.S. 89, where a church unexpectedly brought proselytizing materials to a Parent-Teacher Association event.”
Fariña’s conclusion was that “permitting religious worship services in schools results in the unavoidable identification of those schools with particular congregations; different treatment of religious groups based on their day or time of worship; and inappropriate involvement of school officials in religious matters.”
The mayor is not heeding Fariña’s concerns.
“Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” he said. “The previous administration had a different opinion, I put out my view very clearly over the last year, and we’re going to take this court decision, work with it, update the rules, but continue to give opportunities to faith organizations.”
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in response to the mayor’s statement, “We believe that the Second Circuit decision and Chancellor Fariña in her declaration got it right –– the use of school buildings as the exclusive and primary place of worship for any religion lends at minimum the appearance of endorsing religion. This case may well be appealed and we would urge the mayor to let the legal process play out before considering any changes.”
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, an opponent of regular worship in schools, on April 8 said, “I am going to write a letter complaining to the mayor. On the Upper West Side, we found alternatives for schools that had religious institutions” worshipping in their buildings at rates comparable to what they were paying in the schools. The mayor characterized the money church groups pay the schools as “rent,” while Fariña testified they in fact only pay nominal custodial charges.
Last week’s opinion from the federal appeals court said the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause “has never been understood to require government to finance a subject’s exercise of religion.”
Brewer noted that some of the church groups were leaving religious “paraphernalia” in classroom closets during the week, further giving students the impression that their schools were favoring particular religions.
Editor's note: On April 9, a day after this story was posted and six days after a DOE spokesperson, asked for comment from Fariña, told Gay City News, "The mayor is commenting on the city’s behalf," the Wall Street Journal reported that the chancellor "agrees with what the mayor has said on this issue, and we are reviewing our options on how to give opportunities to faith organizations."
Subsequent to that, when the DOE was asked to spell out what in her 2005 statement Fariña now believes was not true, what steps will be taken to change the policy, and whether public input will be part of that process, spokeswoman Marge Feinberg wrote, in an email statement, "Chancellor Fariña agrees with what the Mayor has said on this issue, and we are reviewing our options on how to give opportunities to faith organizations. Faith organizations playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserve access, however these organizations have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, and pay the same permit charges. These are important groups in our community and they deserve a right to space."
And, at an April 11 breakfast forum hosted by New York Law School, Zachary Carter, the city's new corporation counsel, said the task before his office is ensuring that the change in policy the mayor has advocated is carried out in line with constitutional bounds.