Should Churches Be Allowed to Meet in Public Schools?
A recent U.S. Court of Appeals ruling, and the subsequent fallout here in New York, hits close to home for many of us New Yorkers. The ruling, which came down on June 2, allows for the city of New York to restrict religious groups from meeting in schools. If the ruling is enforced, it will affect many Christians here, including many of my friends who attend the Village Church in the West Village.
For the past year or so, The Village Church has been meeting in New York's Public School 3, and was named in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by Katherine Stewart, author of the forthcoming The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.
Stewart's essay describes a recent move to the city and the discomfort she felt when she realized that an unnamed evangelical church meets in her daughter's school on Sunday mornings. She visited the church and reports on what, to her, were some disturbing instances; though, in fact, they range from disturbing to benign. On the disturbing end of the spectrum, the pastor of the church pointed out art on display from some of the school children and encouraged the congregation to pray for the salvation of those children and their families, that they will come to call the school building a "House of God." That feels a bit like crossing a line.
On the benign side of things, she lays blame on the 8-year-old pastor's daughter for calling the school building her "dad's church."
But this is just the opinion of one New Yorker and, in this case, it may not be up to popular opinion. As a recent article in Christianity Today points out, there is a very good chance that the decision by the U.S. Appeals Court will be overturned by the Supreme Court because it violates a precedent set in 2001. Time will tell the fate of these churches, but Christians shouldn't be surprised if we find that the ruling goes against our interests, and if we find ourselves at odds with the government. In the United States we've enjoyed a long history of acceptance and sometimes support by the government, but in the scope of Christian history, this should be considered an oddity.
We can hope that this blessing continues, but if the tide turns against the church, we shouldn't be shocked. Further, though we should exercise our rights as citizens and seek to ensure that the Constitution is upheld, we shouldn't try to fight against the principalities of the world by arguing with our fellow citizens as some have begun to do.
I'm reminded of Jesus' admonition to the apostles to "shake the dust off their feet" if they find they are not welcome in a town. I used to read this as a kind of snub. But, I'm beginning to see that Jesus was setting expectations, and providing a means to handle the fact that the Kingdom of God is often at odds with the kingdoms of the world. Shaking the dust off was not a move of aggression, but of peace; Jesus was instructing the disciples to not fight for the right to stay. The rest of the chapter goes on to describe the kind of persecution that followers of Christ should expect. Though being kicked out of meeting places is not listed, it seems to be in line with the spirit of the persecution Jesus predicts.
New York City needs churches like the Village Church, and countless others that meet in schools around the city. The good work they do is absolutely essential to the furthering of the Kingdom and the betterment of the city. But if meeting in schools is going to present a stumbling block to the sharing of the gospel, it is best that these churches start looking for new space to rent.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a writer and educator whose work most often considers the various manifestations of religion in culture. He is an editor at Patrolmag.com and writes a weekly column for the popular religion website Patheos. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Christianity Today, Religion Dispatches, The Huffington Post, Killing the Buddha, and The Jersey City Independent.