The protest against the city government’s plans to evict churches worshipping in public schools marched across the Brooklyn Bridge yesterday. Comptroller John Liu said, “We have thousands and thousands of people out here walking across Brooklyn Bridge to stand in front of city hall to say we just want fairness."
The march was a show of unity of Korean, Hispanic, White, African American and other ethnic churches and local politicians. Councilmen Fernando Cabrera of the Bronx, whose office helped to organize the march, said, “We are here to honor every one of our sister churches that have labored year after year, worked long hours. They have volunteered and given of themselves, and now the mayor has decided to evict them.” The eviction of about 60 churches is scheduled for two weeks from now.
The churches are hoping that their protest will move the state legislature and city council to overturn Mayor Bloomberg’s decision. Cabrera reported to the demonstrators on their progress. The city council member from the Bronx said, “Last week we had some great news, our great senators in the education committee unanimously voted--one hundred percent--for the bill to allow houses of worship to come back to the public schools.”
Liu, who is running for mayor, expressed frustration about how the new policy disrupts over a decade of church use of the public schools for worship in the off hours. “For a long time space in public schools has been available to community organizations of all kinds outside of school hours. The building is not being used, and yet it is perfectly good space, space right in the middle of our communities.” The comptroller also said that he had reservations about the policy of requiring the NYC Department of Education to make the decision about what is impermissible worship and what is permissible religious activities.
New York City Public Advocate Bill De Blasio emphasized that allowing churches to worship in the public schools
in the off hours was not an endorsement of religion by the city government. “We understand and embrace the notion that the United States of America does not have a state religion, we're open to all people,” said De Blasio.
He wondered why the city government would discourage groups very active in in responding to gangs, drug use, violence, and hunger. De Blasio said, “They don't understand a lot of times that the best ideas are not in City Hall they are in our neighborhoods. Sometimes the people know better than their government. Sometimes the people know what they need, and they just need the government to step back and let them have at it.”
Excerpts from the speeches:
Fernando Cabrera, Council Member of the 14th District in the Bronx:
It is amazing how we have people from different backgrounds, different races. I see Latinos, I see Asians, African Americans, and Caucasians here all together under one banner, and that is the banner of the Lord.
We are here today not because we hate but because we love. We love what is right, we love what is pure, we love what God loves, and God loves what is pure.
It is right to help the poor, it is right to help the needy, it is right to break the bondages that has held a city captive for years and this is exactly what those churches have been doing, those churches that have been renting from public schools.
So we are here to honor every one of our sister churches that have labored year after year, worked long hours. They have volunteered and given of themselves and now the mayor has decided to evict them.
Last Christmas, they had a nice breakfast with a whole bunch of pastors, and the mayor said, ‘What a great job you are doing.’ And the way he thanked us was setting a policy that on February 12th all the houses of worship will have to leave every public school in New York City.
If we are the drum major and leaders in what is right, then the mayor has been a drum mayor in what is wrong. This is the epitome of religious discrimination. We are talking about a frontal attack on the good work on what our sister churches have been doing year in and year out. Not even back in the 1960s have we seen such a regressive policy against churches.
We say to our governor: governor you stand for tolerance and equality. So, we ask you to give us religious equality and fight for the constitution the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion and freedom of gathering together in public spaces.
New York City Public Advocate Bill De Blasio:
We understand and embrace the notion that the United States of America does not have a state religion, a government religion. We're open to all people. But they make a mistake over there [at City Hall]. The people who founded this country found it in large part because they sought religious liberty. They sought the opportunity to be who they were. In Massachusetts that was Puritans, in Pennsylvania that was Quakers, in Maryland that was Catholics. The country was founded by people who knew they were not all alike, but they all had to be given the right to express their faith. That is what this country is about.
New York City Comptroller John Liu:
The strong message is simple.
For a long time space in public schools has been available to community organizations of all kinds outside of school hours. And for a long time houses of worship have been able to rent that space from the Department of Education just like any other organization. They could apply and pay rent to use that space. So why is it now, all of a sudden, they are so steadfast in trying to change a policy that has been in place for such a long time? And change it in a way that explicitly discriminates against people who want to worship? Where is the common sense in that? Where is the righteousness in that?
There is none. It is not sensible. It is the wrong thing to do. We are here to say, “We are not going to tolerate the discrimination.” It is that simple.