Religious groups are keeping up the pressure on Mayor Bill De Blasio to set up new rules for the use of public school space in the off hours that don’t discriminate based on religious criteria.
Last Thursday a three-judge panel of the federal court of appeals ruled in a split decision that under its current rules that the public schools could deny religious groups' applications to hold religious worship services during the off hours in public school space. The majority opinion said that although community groups could continue to obtain space, that the school district was entitled to withhold space from the religious groups in order to avoid the appearance of establishing a religion through state subsidies.
Later that day, Mayor Bill De Blasio offered support for the religious groups. At a press conference, the mayor said, “I stand by my belief that a faith organization playing by the same rules as any community non-profit deserves access. You know, they have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent – but I think they deserve access.”
De Blasio observed, “They play a very, very important role in terms of providing social services and other important community services. And I think they deserve that right. But we'll assess the court decision and we'll look from there.” Less than a week previously, De Blasio had given a supportive twenty minute speech on his policy agenda to a Brooklyn gathering of several thousand faith-based community activists of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.
Holding a press conference on the steps of city hall on Friday, Councilman Fernando Cabrera was joined by leaders of the Right to Worship Committee to commend Mayor De Blasio’s support for their cause and to ask him to move quickly. Pastor Dimas Sallabberios of the Bronx pointed out that dozens of churches have plans on using space in the public schools for their Easter Sunday worship services. In the past some synagogues have also used public school space for Passover events.
“We are in dialogue and discussions with him,” Bronx Councilman Cabrera said of the mayor, “I’m very hopeful that the mayor will do something as early as next week.”
The Right to Worship Committee asked New Yorkers to call 212-788-3000 to “politely and lovingly” ask Mayor De Blasio to follow through on his support for the right of religious groups to obtain public school space on the same basis as other community groups.
On Sunday top city officials also fanned out to churches across the city to urge help in getting parents to apply for prekindergarten programs for the fall. The deadline to apply is April 23. De Blasio urged anyone who had questions on the pre-K application process to visit: schools.nyc.gov/prek or text “prek” to 877877. The mayor said that the city will be working with community and faith groups to provide space for even more seats for pre-k students in a second wave of offerings later in April.
Meanwhile, the New York City Department of Education says that the next step for the religious groups waiting to hear about their applications for off-hours space in the public schools is up to the mayor’s legal department. Harry Hartfield, deputy press secretary for the school department told A Journey through NYC religions, "It's all up to the legal department. Once they come to a conclusion, they'll notify all religious groups." The time frame for the response is uncertain, Hartfield said. On Sunday the religious group at the center of the court case, the Bronx Household of Faith, held its regular worship service in P.S. 15 in University Heights of The Bronx.
De Blasio said he has turned over an evaluation the court decision to the City’s Corporate Counsel Zachary Carter. The lawyer is a former federal prosecutor known for a balanced approach in making legal judgments but is also an advocate for using the law to defend the poor and the unjustly accused. Carter successfully prosecuted New York City policeman Justin Volpe for his assault on Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.
Upon his appointment as city Corporate Counsel, Carter explained how he sees his role. “The mayor sets the policy direction,” the lawyer said. “It’s the job of the corporation counsel and the highly skilled lawyers of the New York Law Department to provide the legal architecture to support those policy positions.” The mayor and his lawyer are united in balancing out the city's legal and economic interests with a commitment to “justice” and “fair outcomes” for an “era of shared opportunity and prosperity and justice," Carter said.
Shortly after he moved into private practice Carter gave an interview in 2000 with a Lutheran church publication about his legal values. Carter talked about his core values as rooted in his Christian faith: “"My faith has been the vehicle from which I learned values and [it] activates everything I do. I'm certainly conscious of using the law as an instrument for helping people in a way that my faith teaches me I should."
Will the lawyer's decision be welcomed news on Good Friday and Passover for the religious groups?
With additional reporting by Melissa Kimiadi.