The city government claims that if it rents public school space in the off hours to a church for worship services that the objective observer on the street will interpret the services as a government endorsement of that church’s religion.
This claim has played a large role in the city government’s legal case and has been cited by federal judges in their opinions. The U.S. Appeals Court sided with the city government’s claim that “allowing the conduct of religious worship services in schools could give rise to a sufficient appearance of endorsement to constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause.”
The lawyers for the churches claim that the objective observer on the street sees a worship service at a public school in the off hours as a church renting space and not as endorsement of that church’s religion. They claim that “the objective, fully informed observer who passes by the [School] Board’s schools…could not reasonably infer that the Board was endorsing religion in its public schools…[but by allowing diverse organizations meet in the schools aims] at improving the welfare of the community.”
So, what does the objective observer in the street actually see? We asked a random sample of 179 of them on Sunday, November 7 outside the doors of or nearby four schools that have churches meeting within. Working with Professor Jenna Reinbold’s religion class at Colgate University, we posted interviewers in the Bronx, Washington Heights and Harlem near these churches which have been meeting in public schools:
New Vision Church @ PS 151 Harlem 127th Street;
Haitian Christian Church @ PS 28 Wright Bros School 155th Street;
Heavenly Vision Christian Center @ PS 52 Washington Heights at Academy Avenue & Broadway; and
Bronx Household of Faith @ PS 15/291 Bronx, University Heights on Andrews Avenue.
In addition to the survey questions we interviewed the respondents for further comment on the issues. We have referred to them by first names because we are protecting their confidentiality in the survey responses.
It is fair to say that many of our interviewers were surprised by the vigor and favor when local people in the street talked about their schools renting spaces to religious groups for worship services in the off hours. Down the block from PS 151 in Harlem, Theo summed up most people’s opinion, “Why not?” Hope, also in Harlem, challenged the mayor’s position, “I believe we should be free to worship any place whether in a school or on a sidewalk.”
Over two-thirds (69%) of the people surveyed near the public schools that host worship services thought that it is okay for the schools to rent the space. 17% disagree.
Furthermore, the most informed observers, the ones that actually know that a church service is held in the local school, were much more likely to endorse the rental of school space to a church. 80% of those who knew that a church was meeting in the school on Sunday thought it was okay for the school to rent space to the church. Because we only ran across only one person identifying as an attender of a church that meets in a public school, we don’t think this shift was caused by interviewing self-interested people. It seems that the possession of objective knowledge that a church meets in the school dramatically shifts the people who said that they didn’t have any opinion toward a positive opinion of public schools renting worship space to churches in the off hours.
Who is the greater constitutional threat?
In their opinion the churches don’t poise a constitutional threat. Overwhelmingly (64%), the people in the streets around the public schools with worship services rejected the city government’s argument that “a public school should not rent space to churches because it violates the separation of church and state.” 18% did say that they thought that the rentals violated the separation of church and state.
Miguel, a college student who lives in Harlem, observed an irony, “Churches rent their space to schools! I don’t see a violation of church and state.” Anna, a lawyer outside of Public School 52 in Washington Heights, argued that the city government should get out of court, “I don’t think it is a constitutional issue.”
Almost half of the respondents believed that the city government’s position was a greater threat to constitutional freedoms. 48% of the respondents argued that the rental of space to churches would protect religious freedom. By not renting space, the people in the neighborhoods felt that the city government was not being supportive of religious freedom. In Harlem Hope enjoined, “I believe that we should be free to worship any place, whether in a school or on a sidewalk.” Another person in Harlem added, “Religion should be in the schools. I thought the Muslims were meeting at the school and that is okay with me.” On the other side of the coin, Mohammed in the Bronx near the subway station for Bronx Household of Faith which meets in PS 15/291 also noted, “I am a Muslim. If the school rents to a Christian church, it does not affect me.”
The mayor needs to find out what the neighborhood people think
Sometimes people on the street thanked the interviewers for asking their opinion and wondered why the mayor’s lawyers think that they speak for the neighborhood people before asking their opinions. Theo in Harlem observed, “That’s why they have people like you to come out to see what people really think.” Theo, who is active in a church just down the block, didn’t feel threatened by another church meeting in the school. “I think it is good for the school to rent to them.” Also in Harlem, Yvonne came up to iterate, “The survey is great!” In Washington Heights Henry observed, “The churches do a lot to contribute to the community.”
The economics of school-church collaboration
About 30% of passersby think that public school rentals to churches is not a constitutional issue one way or the other. About half of these people considered rentals of public school space to the churches as way to help the school’s finances. Meili, a college student in Harlem, said, “If a school has good financial status, I prefer it not to rent to churches. But it is okay if it helps the school’s finances.”
Indeed, some argued that the public schools ought to protect religious freedom and reward the churches’ community building by letting the churches have the space for free. Mahedo in the Bronx argued against renting to the churches but not for the reason that our survey interviewer assumed. She exclaimed at the end of the survey, “The public school should let the church use it for free!” Victor, also in the Bronx, argued, “The schools should not charge the church.” Henry observed that in his neighborhood of Washington Heights, “There is a thin line between the community and religion. The churches do a lot to contribute to the community.”
Quite a few passersby commented that the churches could help the schools by offering tutoring services and other help. Many people mentioned that in hard economic times the schools and churches need to help each other. Miguel in Harlem said he was “hopeful that the schools would put the rent into education and the betterment of the schools. The church could do tutoring at the school also.” Jane was passing by the school in Harlem and noted that “the churches could provide much needed funds.” Nearby, Tracy commented that the churches might bring money and some jobs to the school. She observed about her neighborhood, “It is a poor district.” Mohammed in the Bronx cautioned that he was worried not about the churches but about how effectively “the schools would use any rent money. Are they using it for the students?” Also in the Bronx, Jose said, “In today’s economy the schools should be renting.”
To the question, “Is it a business or a religious decision to rent space to churches for worship services in the off hours,” several neighborhood people pointed out that it is a strictly business decision. Janice in Harlem argued, “They’re renting just like other groups.” Jane in Harlem argued, “The school is just a building. A rental brings much needed funds.” In the Bronx Kim agreed with Jane’s sentiment, “It’s just a business like all the others. It is nonsense for schools not to be able to rent out like they would to organizations of other businesses.” Kira near PS 28 where the Haitian Christian Church meets also said, “It is a business transaction.”
The fairness issue
Is it fair or unfair to discriminate against religious groups when renting public school space in the off hours? Many respondents think that the city government is trying to practice discriminatory behavior by privileging secular uses of the schools.
Janice in Harlem observe, “They’re renting just like they do to other groups.” In Washington Heights Alex said that the public schools were just being fair. “If other groups wanted to use the space, the school would let them too.” Juanita in the Bronx said, “If you can rent to other organizations, you can rent to a church.” Johonna in the Bronx observed that in the cramped spaces of poor New York City, “we all have to share the same space.”
The fairness issue also came up in people’s comments that the schools should not rent just to Christian churches. After indicating her support for the rental of space to churches in the Bronx, Cindy added, “A public school is for everyone, not just for churches.”
Schools as the community’s resource
The people in the streets see their schools as a community resource to be shared. Gentrification and the bad economy has reduced the amount of affordable public meeting space for all community groups, but particularly for those in poor neighborhoods. The city is experiencing a massive hidden crisis of the loss of community meeting space. Stickball clubs that used to rent basements no longer have a place to meet or store their equipment. Start-up churches have fewer space options. Many existing churches are doubling, tripling, quadrupling or more the number of groups that meet in their buildings. It is much harder in this city to find space for every sort of voluntary community groups that help people recover from hurricanes or personal problems, socialize, or for youth to engage in after school activities. The people in the streets of our poor neighborhoods think that the mayor needs to stop trying to eradicate churches out of one of the few remaining affordable communal meeting spaces for the poor: their public schools.
The survey was a project of Journey Workshops, headed by Christopher Smith. Its team included: Darilyn Carnes; Tony Carnes; Maria Karlya; Melissa Kimiadi; and Chloe Nwangwu. The Colgate University team included Professor Jenna Reinbold and her students: Madeline Allen ; TJ Boulager; Zach Herzog; Kerri Houston; Chase Johnson; Linsdey Kalbaugh; Georgia McIntyre; Monica Murphy; Christian Quattrociocchi; Andrew Romeo; Jessica Sitko; Konrad Thallner; and Ali Vangrow.
The poll was scientifically designed to test the claims made about the perceptions of “the objective person in the street” walking by a school that hosts a church worship service. For an equivalent sample of a general population survey with a sample size of 179, the statistical variance in the results would be about +/- 5%. There are a number of biases that could affect the interviewing process, though the statistical results seem strong enough to overcome any bias mistakes. The poll was taken on Sunday, November 7, 2012 between the hours of 12:30 pm and 4:00 pm, the time of peak traffic on the sidewalks near the schools and churches.