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OpEd: Worship occupies more public space than the city schools by Dale T. Irvin, New York Theological Seminary

Where I would go beyond the court’s thinking is to dispute the notion that worship is confined to a particular time or place on a Sunday morning. They also worship God by working in the world to alleviate poverty, feed the sick, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner.

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Praying with the homeless in front of the Municipal Building. Photo illustration: A Journey through NYC religions

Some federal judges think worship is a weekend hobby. Is that what worship means to you?

This past Thursday it appeared that a coalition of religious groups had gained a small victory when a judge granted an order blocking for ten days the City’s ban on the rental of public school space to churches for worship services. Then, the following day a US appeals court ruled that the order only applied to the single church that had filed the original lawsuit, the Bronx Household of Faith, leaving the rest of the Christian congregations throughout the city that have been renting space in public schools in the cold outside of their places of worship this last Sunday.

I support the efforts of the Council of Churches of the City of New York, Rev. Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Pastor Dimas Salaberrios of Infiinity Church, State Senator Ruben Diaz, the various clergy organizations, and numerous churches throughout New York City that are fighting Mayor Bloomberg and the City’s Department of Education’s decision to evict the churches.

President Dale Irvin of NY Theological Seminary, which was founded in 1900.

My support is based on several reasons, ranging from the pragmatic (churches pay rent that the city needs; churches make for better neighborhoods) to the philosophical (government should not interfere with the exercise of worship).

We should also take note of a bit of theological reasoning buried in the court’s decision to allow the City to ban such worship. The court may have articulated a far more profound insight into the nature of worship than the understanding found today in many in our churches.

All along, the major argument supporting the right of churches to rent space in public schools was based on the freedom of speech and non-interference with religious association. However, the courts have listened to another line of argument that holds worship is far more than just speech and that the performance of worship is fundamentally different from other kinds of civic assembly.

The courts fully recognize the right of free association.  Schools that receive federal funds must allow social, civic, recreational, and entertainment events that contribute to the welfare of the community. Such events, even entertainment, must be non-exclusive and open to the general public.  Schools must also allow for events where religious speech is expressed. If a Christian group wants to rent a school auditorium to show an explicitly Christian film, the courts have ruled that it must be allowed to do so on the same grounds that allow any other civic organization to rent a school auditorium to show a film. The determining factor is that the activity and the speech associated with the event must be consistent with the welfare of the community.  This qualification prevents the KKK from renting a school auditorium to show a racist film.

However, the United State Court of Appeals used reasoning that went beyond the issue of free expression for its ruling against the Bronx Household of Faith, upholding the City’s ban on churches renting space in public schools.  First, the court stated that allowing a church to rent space in a school could give the perception that a local school district was favoring one particular religion over another, a violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. Of course, that objection could easily be addressed by allowing multiple religions to rent space, or by making certain that there was sufficient public disclaimer that a rental of space represented any support for an individual religion.

There was a far more profound reason that the court gave in its June 2, 2011 ruling against the use of the public school. It was not religious speech, the court ruled, but the performance of worship that was determinative in its legal reasoning.  Worship is the core event in organized religion, the court declared.  “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. The church has made the school the place for the performance of its rites, and might well appear to have established itself there. The place has, at least for a time, become the church.”

The argument drives home a fundamental insight and conviction that too often escapes us in the church today.  Worship is the core event in our life together as a church.  Worship is ultimately what the church exists to do.  Furthermore worship changes the very nature of reality, the very nature not only of the place where it is performed, but of the people who perform it.  For a time, the world is changed when worship is performed.

Where I would go beyond the court’s thinking is to dispute the notion that worship is confined to a particular time or place on a Sunday morning.  Christians do not just worship God when they gather to sing, pray, hear the Word, and commune around the table that Christ first set for them.  They also worship God by working in the world to alleviate poverty, feed the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and otherwise minister to the Christ they meet in their neighbors.

The court is right to distinguish religious worship from religious speech. It just does not understand that Christians have a far more expansive definition of worship. For example, the Orthodox have long taught that the work we do as Christians in the world, after a Sunday service, is the liturgy after the Liturgy. When individuals or congregations work for justice in the world, are they not even for a moment, perhaps at a spiritual level that is not discernable to all, transforming the very nature of the world?  Is this not what Jesus meant when he said, “…the Kingdom is among you”?

I don’t think that the insight needs to be confined to Christian worship. In all worship a moment of transcendence occurs in which there is a pointer to that which is beyond the immediacy of our own time and space. I do not have to agree that all religions are equal to be able to discern that all forms of religious worship point beyond and transform the immediacy of place in which they happen. I welcome such transformations, which is why I support not only the use of public spaces for Christian worship such as the evangelical Sunday meetings in public schools and Pope John Paul II’s public mass held in Central Park in 1995 but also the use of public space by other religions as well.  My allies in this regard are my sisters and brothers of the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Ifa and many other faiths.

Last December in the New York Public Library the Mayor hosted his annual interfaith breakfast for the religious leadership of the city. Several Muslim leaders boycotted the breakfast to protest the City’s reported use of undercover agents to gather political information on the Muslim community.  Just as the Mayor was beginning to speak, one pastor stood up to speak out against the decision to close public schools to Christian congregations. But I was most struck by the role worship played at the Mayor’s own breakfast.

Before the Mayor spoke, ordained Christians and equivalent leaders of the various religious communities in the city engaged in religious performances of prayers and devotions taken from their normal worship. The purpose wasn’t just some sort of religious speech. They were engaging in performance drawn from worship, and they were doing so at the Mayor’s invitation.

The Mayor might not want to admit it, but according to the decision of the U.S. courts, the nature of the New York Public Library was changed that day at that event. Further, in his own remarks the Mayor seemed for the most part to like the changes that he sees worship bringing to the life of the wider city as it is performed as the liturgy after the Liturgy. He seemed to favor religious groups feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners, and making neighborhoods safer.  Maybe we shouldn’t tell him that these activities are worship too.

Click here for more information on New York Theological Seminary.

  • Ur blog post, “OpEd: Worship occupies more public space than the city schools by Dale T.
    Irvin, New York Theological Seminary › A Journey
    through NYC religions” was very well worth writing a
    comment on! Only wanted to announce you really did a very good job.
    Thanks for your effort -Gregory

  • Dr. Irvin I suppose there would be a sound like the dry bones coming together when the prophet Ezekiel spoke and told them to come alive!!!!

  • I appreciate the article and discussion.

  • I love the discussion here, with all of the insights, and am especially appreciative of the Beloved City not being a physical place but a place in our hearts to embrace others. It struck me that if the doors of the buildings that we call churches were truly open throughout the city, no congregation of any kind would have to be paying rent on a Sunday morning. One of the popular phrases of the ecumenical movement in the 1930s was "let the church be the church." I wonder what would happen if the church really did become the church....

  • I appreciate Dr. Irvin's OpEd and willingness to comment on the subject. Many students at NYTS are affected by this decision and have been shut out, paying high prices in hotels, or looking for alternatives. I particularly like the fact that he presents worship as a context not necessarily encased in a building. That brings to my mind the Beloved City not being a physical place to create, but a place in our hearts to embrace and receive those whose backs are against the wall and marginalized. Like Diana, this is a wake up call for the church - are the doors of the Church open?

  • Dr. Dale Irving's insightful article provides a scholarly challenge to the mayor's decision on congregations renting school space for the exercise of worship. We can all agree that religious worship taking place in public school rooms do not necessarily portray endorsement by the school board. The exercise of wholesome religious assembly can actually be advantageous to community building and transformation. Yet before we launch the religious bandwagon of appeals, which I believe should be our ultimate goal, Dr. Irving's challenge also meets us in the sanctum of our place of meeting, not only with each other but with our God. His timely reference to the transcendence of worship is a concept many churches have forgotten. The essence of our religious experience is demonstrated in a heart that cares for the least, the lost and the left-outs. The church no longer has the luxury of taking for granted sacred space but engaging in the dialogue on sacred practices which transcends mere assembly. Regardless of the ultimate decision by the court, may the church not fail in grasping this moment as a divine wake-up call and not merely an intrusion on religious liberty.

  • Like this article.

  • I love the richness of the discussion here, which was largely missing from the public debate.

  • I am thankful that Dr. Irvin wrote his opinion concerning this subject, and I am equally grateful that he is reminding us that worship doesn't just happen on Sunday. As believers we have to take every opportunity to spread God's message of love in every corner of the world. I believe that the most appropriate place to bring this message is in to our classrooms. So often the work that we do before we get to church on Sunday, Saturday etc... involve us ministering to people but we afraid to say that because it is not politically correct. It saddens me that sometimes we are more concern in looking right instead of doing right. So again I say thank you Dr. Irvin for standing up for those who don't get a chance to have their voice heard on this subject.

  • Like this

  • Like oped

  • What great insight and scholarship! I particularly enjoyed Dale's argument, "Where I would go beyond the court’s thinking is to dispute the notion that worship is confined to a particular time or place on a Sunday morning. Christians do not just worship God when they gather to sing, pray, hear the Word, and commune around the table that Christ first set for them. They also worship God by working in the world to alleviate poverty, feed the sick, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and otherwise minister to the Christ they meet in their neighbors." This should be used in appeal...Prayerfully, like Dr. John Mendez (pastor of one of our graduating D.Min students, soon to be Dr. Reid) or Dr. Peter Heltzel some one in our student body is waiting in the wings to rise to the occasion on this one!

    Thanks for the piece!

  • Thank you Dale for your powerful, eloquent arguments for the freedom of religious services in public schools and insights on the transformative power of worship. True worship goes beyond religious sacraments. Worship indeed gives voice to justice and commands us to serve and love our neighbors in their hour of need.

  • A very thoughtful piece, one of the best I've read. However, I still think the courts made the right decision. The rents paid by the congregations are generally low enough to represent a de-facto subsidy.

    I do agree however, that with an appropriate rent and a proper disclaimer, this issue could be managed.

  • Like Oped

  • like this

  • I like the OpEd.

  • Yes, thank you Dale for words of wisdom 1988, Marxist Mozambique government officals visited the bishops and preachers as they quietly served the people. Their request: Open your churches up and welcome our people in to worship. Build more churches. Our values as a country are disintegrating without church doors being open. Twenty-five years later, many churches are building centers to care for the war's orphaned and vulnerable chilren -- those left without parents due to ill health and poverty.

    ". . . the world is changed when worship is performed" -- thank you for this statement, and God bless us all in efforts of Peace-building.

  • I was glad to see the reasoned discussion of the unwise ruling that religious institutes may not rent space in schools. One has to wonder "What WERE they thinking?" when we read of authorities trying to prevent religious institutions from renting school space.

    After all, it is not as if the space is ideal. Institutions are renting there because they literally cannot get a better location.

    A non-denominational church was operating in a middle school near where I live. There was a great deal of publicity, hand-outs distributed in the neighborhood, etc. It is no longer there. Obviously one of two things happened: it either found a better space and moved on, or it folded.

    Renting in a school isn't the ideal situation, but it gives folks a chance to get started, and in this difficult economy, we should smooth the process, not be an obstacle.

  • Thanks Dale, I loved this. I especially like the reference to the tranaformative nature of worship. It remineded me of what remains one of my favorite and core theological understandings- Walter Brueggmann's theology of imagination. We do so need to imagaine what could be!

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