Some people have asked us, "Why do we need another march across the Brooklyn Bridge to win the right for religious groups to rent space from public schools on the off-hours?" A Journey through NYC religions asked for some answers from Pastor Bill Devlin, a leader of the Right to Worship group, a hunger faster for the right to worship movement, and a pastor at Manhattan Bible Church in north Manhattan.
Q: When and where is the next Right To Worship march?
A: We will start at Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn at 2 pm, Sunday, April 22 and march across Brooklyn Bridge for a worship service in City Hall Park. Take the A Train to High Street on Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Q: Why is Right to Worship calling supporters to march again?
A: We're marching for two basic reasons.
First, we want to thank God for the victory in court on February 29th.
Second, we want to continue to put pressure on the state legislators.
Most of the state legislators want us to go away. They don't want this to go on their record. People that vote against allowing religious groups equal access with other community groups to rental space from public schools raises the question, Are they against the American principle of the right to worship?
Only seven state senators have indicated that they will vote against the legislation for equal access.
If the legislation for equal access (State Assembly bill #8800) is allowed to come to a vote, it is an easy vote. We already have the majority, 85 legislators, signed on to ink and paper that they will vote on this. A delay has happened on arguments about the specific language in the bill. When it finally comes up to a vote, it will pass and give houses of worship equal access to education buildings.
Q: Where does the decision stand right now in the courts? Federal Judge Loretta A. Preska’s comments seemed to indicate that she might rule in favor of the churches. If she does rule in favor of the churches, then wouldn’t that be the end of the struggle?
Or if the courts go against the churches, then can a vote in the state legislature overrule the court action? How?
A: The lights are green on the federal level. On February 29th, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in our favor. This was the first time in 18 years that the Second federal circuit court seems to agree about issues related to worship in public schools.
What happened in the court is that we have the right to worship in public schools through 2012. Our feeling is that everything will work out. Obviously, our position is in agreement with the Second circuit court and with Federal District Court Judge Preska. If for some reason we don't get relief from the Second circuit court, we are going to appeal.
We have an indication from the state legislature in Albany that the State Assembly bill #8800 will come up for a vote. That is what we have been hoping for all along. Speaker Sheldon Silver once said, ‘If federal court rules, I will bring the bill to a vote.’ But if the state legislature delays until after the summer recess, who knows what will come? We hope this bill will come to a vote in the upcoming weeks. Now is the time.
Q: How would you answer a pastor or lay person who says, “It is best to accept the situation as God’s will and move forward with the work of the church in a different direction”?
A: I talked to one pastor this week about that argument. My question to people who make this argument is, “Wait a moment! How do you know it is God's will that the churches be denied equal access to public school space? We had a victory in court on February 29th. So, we can say it is God's will that houses of worship remain in public education building because the federal courts agreed with us.”
Some pastors do say it is God's will that we be excluded from the public schools and that we are wallowing in the sorrow and anger about our exclusion. They forget that Christians are supposed to come alongside our fellow brothers and sisters. When they're hurting, we all hurt.
Eighty-five churches face eviction. So, why are you not coming alongside your fellow brothers/sisters? Does that mean you are going to help them with the rent [when they can no longer afford to pay the rent of private buildings]? It is scandalous that some churches won’t say, “We are with you.” We have support from many non-Christians; they are showing the compassionate spirit.
We want to be a blessing for the churches that are facing eviction. My church and City Councilman Fernando Cabrera’s church have their own buildings. This argument over equal access to public school space is not specifically our battle. So, our support speaks volumes to those pastors who are facing eviction. They tell me often, “These pastors with their own buildings are willing to come alongside us” even though they don't have a dog in the fight. The other pastors who lack courage to come along side us, need to show their solidarity.”
Q: How do we know that this march will change any minds in the state legislature?
A: The elected politicians—they are very good at mathematics. They could teach our school pupils a couple of things about math. They know every person out at the march represents a larger group of people who were unable to attend. When they see the people tomorrow, they will say to themselves and each other, ‘These folks are back!’ The march will be a wake-up call for our state legislators. We are not going away until we have the right to worship. It's an American principle, like freedom of the press, freedom to assembly, and the freedom of democracy.
Q: How many people do you need in the march for this effort to be successful? Wouldn’t a small turnout hurt the movement in the state legislature?
A: We are hoping somewhere between five and ten thousand. We feel that we're going to get that.
We had five thousand last time. We did not advertise last time and organized less than a week before the event. We just raised money to pay for the stage. This time we're been advertising on radio stations, listed on KLOV's events site and the internet. We have invited about 4,000 people through social marketing. We've done phonathons in every borough!
This is not a protest or political rally but a time of celebration. That is why we brought in five top worship performers. We didn’t do that last time.
I don't think we're going to have a small turn out. All of us expect a huge turnout. Of course, we would like a million people to come! But we know that people of faith have responsibilities on Sunday: church services and families. So, to make it easier for people to come we have oriented this whole rally around prayer and celebration. We're hoping pastors will say, “Instead of our service today, we're going to Cadman Plaza and join the other churches.” By the way the New York Police Department has been cooperative.
Q: Besides turning out for the march, what one thing can one person do to help?
A: One thing each person could do is contact Speaker Sheldon Silver. Ask him to allow the full State Assembly to vote on Assembly bill #8800.
His phone number in Albany is 518-455-3791. Or you could call his Manhattan office at 212-312-1420.
Q: Any last words that you would like to tell our readers?
A: Please come and worship God with us. We are thankful for nycreligion.info. They have been a tremendous support and we are grateful.
One part of the story is now developing. Last week, the director of a faith based office in the United States cabinet had a phone conversation with Councilman Cabrera about our right to worship movement. Dr. Ken Bedell, a senior advisor to the U. S. Secretary of Education in the US Department of Education, listened to Councilman Cabrera’s story. We are hoping that Dr. Bedell will speak to the Secretary who will then bring up our struggle at a cabinet meeting with President Barack Obama. This is a winnable topic for Obama’s interest. And if he came out in favor, we probably would gain the right to worship. We hope that this conversation will go somewhere.
Our mantra is “Love, litigation, and legislation.” This is our triple L strategy. As part of the love, at our rally we will be thanking the legislators who have joined us. We often forget to thank people in the midst of the heat of the battle. We forget both to thank God and the legislators who have been with us.
On April 13 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the following statement on a danger to religious liberty:
- Discrimination against small church congregations. New York City enacted a rule that barred the Bronx Household of Faith and sixty other churches from renting public schools on weekends for worship services even though non-religious groups could rent the same schools for scores of other uses. While this would not frequently affect Catholic parishes, which generally own their own buildings, it would be devastating to many smaller congregations. It is a simple case of discrimination against religious believers.
Yesterday, the Christian Legal Society filed a legal brief on behalf of the churches meeting in public schools. The brief was endorsed by a broad spectrum of Christian organizations: the Council of Churches of the City of New York, Brooklyn Council of Churches, Queens Federation of Churches, American Baptist Churches of Metropolitan New York, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, National Association of Evangelicals, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the American Bible Society.