On Thursday, the United States Court of Appeals ruled that New York City public school buildings could no longer be used outside of school hours for “religious worship services.” With hundreds of congregations currently housed exclusively in public schools, this ruling will have serious ramifications for all kinds of faith groups across the city.
Judge Pierre Leval, who spoke in defense of Thursday’s ruling, argues that, “When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity.”
Especially when paired with the recent battle over the use of faith-related language at a Texas graduation, this ruling epitomizes our country’s hypersensitivity about the commingling of religion and public education. But when religious groups that frequent a school on a Sunday will never actually see any school children, this latest ruling takes that sensitivity one step too far.
The logic behind last week’s ruling poses questions about what exactly constitutes a “worship service.” This is an issue about which New York City has been notoriously ambivalent. All religious groups were banned from gathering in schools until 2002 when the U.S. Supreme Court found it unconstitutional to prohibit a bible study group from using school facilities. Here, the courts grouped religious groups together with religious services. After the 2002 ruling, both were permitted in New York City.
This latest ruling, however, seeks to separate a group that gathers to perform a religious service from a group that gathers to perform some other religious activity. But if the logic behind the ruling is that “the nature of the site changes” when a program of worship takes place inside of it, I have a hard time understanding this division of religious groups.
A March segment of 60 Minutes profiled a Bronx-based choir called “Gospel for Teens.” Though I watched this particular program more than two months ago, it was the first thing that came to mind when I heard about the ban on the religious use of school space. For members of “Gospel for Teens,” most of whom live in volatile areas of Harlem, the gospel choir is a rare safe place to express their feelings, build relationships, and be a part of something bigger than themselves. According to choir member Gabby Francois, “It’s the most wonderful thing I ever been a part of in my life.”
The passion that permeates that gospel choir’s religious hymns is perhaps the purest and most intense form of religious worship. Then consider that the Gospel for Teens choir — and many other similar ones in New York City — began in high school music rooms.
Other similar faith-oriented gatherings include groups of bible study, religious mentorship, church-funded community service projects, and even speech and debate teams that participate in the National Catholic Forensics League. Many of these groups – important sources of teenage inspiration – could not exist without the classroom they use as their meeting place.
Under the new New York City ruling, these groups should still be able to gather in school spaces. But many of them — like actual religious services — do turn the classroom into a place of religious worship. So why are some forms of worship banned, while others are not? To me, Thursday’s court ruling seems like a dangerous (and unnecessary) stepping stone towards the prohibition of any kind of religious group meeting in a public school.
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