public schools

New York City to Change Rules to Allow Churches to Rent Schools

Photo via Alliance Defending Freedom / RNS
Church members hold signs during a 2013 rally in the Bronx. Photo via Alliance Defending Freedom / RNS

Congregations in New York City that rent space in public schools will be able to hold Easter services this Sunday despite a ruling on March 30 by the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting an appeal from an evangelical church in the Bronx that sought to overturn a ban on after-hours worship services at public schools.

A spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio also said that the mayor would work to ensure that houses of worship could continue to rent space like any other group.

“Now that litigation has concluded, the city will develop rules of the road that respect the rights of both religious groups and nonparticipants,” Wiley Norvell said in response to the ruling.

“While we review and revise the rules, groups currently permitted to use schools for worship will continue to be able to worship on school premises.”

Pastor Robert Hall of the Bronx Household of Faith, which was the plaintiff in the case, said he was cautiously optimistic after the administration’s response.

“We are gratified that he is allowing the churches to stay,” Hall told The New York Times.

Public Schools Can Avoid the ‘War on Christmas’ Tussle

Photo via Masson / Shutterstock
Photo via Masson / Shutterstock

Like much of the pre-Christmas hype that used to come only after Thanksgiving, cries of a “War on Christmas” began early this year.

This time,  public school policies concerning religious holidays got caught in the crosshairs. Charges have been leveled in response to the Montgomery County, Md., Board of Education’s vote (7-1) to remove any mention of religious holidays on days that school is out. The action came after a complaint from a Muslim group that its holidays were not recognized as an occasion for school closure.

We live in a country that rightly prevents government endorsement of religion while protecting religious exercise. Indeed, public schools must accommodate the religious needs of the students without advancing religion itself.

In this spirit, the following policy guideline on excused absences for religious reasons was endorsed several decades ago by a slew of education and religious groups, including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and has enjoyed the widespread approval and acceptance by school officials and religious liberty advocates alike:

COMMENTARY: Power Elites Are Waging War on the Foundations of Democracy

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

The two most critical requirements for democracy are freedom of the press and an educated citizenry.

The one informs the people and brings government and power into the open. The other enables people to comprehend information and to discuss opinions without resorting to panic and violence.

Power elites have declared war on both requirements.

These include “big money” oligarchs, such as the people who gather around the Koch brothers, politicians who cater to the wealthy in exchange for campaign contributions and government officials who have come to identify with the corporate and financial interests they regulate.

Through acquisitions of newspapers and television outlets and intimidation of reporters, these power elites seek to turn the press into propaganda vehicles and to distort information.

Survey: Hispanics Flock to Pope Francis, the Democratic Party

Julio Parissi prays for Luis Rosas of Holyoke, Mass. RNS file photo by Mieke Zuiderweg

A new survey of Hispanic political and religious values finds they’re overwhelmingly Democrats who hold a largely negative view of the Republican Party.

The 2013 Hispanic Values Survey of 1,563 Hispanic adults was conducted online in both English and Spanish between Aug. 23 and Sept. 3. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

The survey found that most Hispanics are delighted with Argentine-born Pope Francis, but they hold slightly less favorable views of the Catholic Church. While nearly 69 percent look favorably on the pope, only 54 percent see the institution in a favorable light.

Is Yoga Instruction Religious? San Diego Court Case May Decide

Photo courtesy RNS.
Children practice yoga at El Camino Creek Elementary School in Carlsbad, Calif. Photo courtesy RNS.

In an elementary school classroom with an American flag draped over one wall, a couple dozen students rose to standing positions. Then they shifted into poses called “volcano part one,” “silent gorilla,” and “rag doll.”

Some students may not realize it, but the semiweekly, half-hour course might be gone by the time they return in the fall.

In this upscale, seaside suburb just north of San Diego, parents have filed a lawsuit arguing the Encinitas Union School District should do away with the yoga elective because the discipline is inherently religious, and the teaching of it in the public schools violates the First Amendment.

COMMENTARY: A New Evangelical Engagement with Public Schools

 Photo courtesy Cardens Design/shutterstock.com.
An open bible with grass and a man walking towards a cross. Photo Courtesy Cardens Design/Shutterstock.com.

Why would evangelical Christians want anything to do with public schools? Judging from decades of culture war rhetoric, these are bastions of secular humanism where God and his fearers are unwelcome. School prayers — not allowed. Teaching creationism — verboten. Abstinence-only sex education — few to be found. Sharing the gospel openly — forget about it.

Little wonder, then, that many evangelicals withhold their support, and kids. And through their support of conservative politicians and policies, evangelicals have been, broadly speaking, part of a political dynamic that has shrunk support, financial and otherwise, for public schools.

But there is a serious problem with this flight from public education. Evangelicals are realizing there are real human beings in those left-behind schools who are struggling to teach and learn against difficult odds, and the future well-being of those kids and our communities depends on their success. Shouldn’t Christians with hearts full of love and compassion be helping them?

Education and the Wealth Gap

 

Ask a random group of people, “How do we improve our public schools?” and you’re apt to get divergent, passionate answers. Christians, like other citizens, have different opinions on how to heal what’s hurting in our education system. What we can share is a belief that all children are truly precious in God’s sight and an understanding that public education is a key component of the common good—that a healthy school system has the potential to bring opportunity and uplift to children regardless of their economic status. Jan Resseger is the minister for public education and witness with the national Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ. She spoke with Sojourners associate editor Julie Polter in June.

Sojourners: Why is public education a commitment for the United Church of Christ?
Jan Resseger: The commitment to education is a long tradition for us. Our pilgrim forebears brought community schooling and higher education to the New England colonies—New England congregationalism is one of our denominational roots. Another root is the American Missionary Association (AMA), an abolitionist society that grew out of the defense committee for the Africans on the slave ship Amistad. The AMA founded schools for freed slaves as a path to citizenship across the South during and after the Civil War.

Several denominations came together as the UCC in 1957, and our general synods since then have taken stands on issues such as the protection of the First Amendment in public schools and supporting school desegregation through the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. From 1958 to the present, we have spoken to institutional and structural racism and classism in schools. We also have addressed privatization, because we’ve been strong supporters for many, many years of public schools as key to the strength of our society and democracy.

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What Can Churches Do?

JUST OVER A year ago, I attended a retreat sponsored by the Fund for Theological Education. During the retreat we were encouraged to look at our lives and to find a personal story that captured the essence of what led us to our particular ministries. That led me to reflect on my childhood: growing up in poverty, attending a different school every year, walking to school with cardboard in the bottom of my shoes because the soles were worn out, wondering how I was going to eat, lacking school supplies at times, and dealing with the stress of a single mother who was a substance abuser.

By reminding me of those things I endured and had to overcome as a child, that exercise helped me tap into my real passion. I wanted to find ways to help children growing up in similar circumstances. I wanted to inspire them to believe in themselves and know that they can make it.

At-risk youth and under-performing students need to be inspired, but equally important is their need for adults who are willing to do the work of helping them succeed academically. Education continues to be our most reliable tool for creating upward life trajectories and optimal opportunities. Churches are more than places where people come in search of a deeper relationship with God; they are also places where people come to find deeper connections with their communities and the possibility of using their gifts and talents to help those in need.

All these forces together compelled me to act on an idea I had more than a year ago: to call on friends from across the country to help create Faith for Change. Faith for Change builds a national network of churches and people of faith committed to implementing proven educational strategies for improving children’s lives.

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'We Have a Long Way to Go'

For nearly 50 years, Jonathan Kozol has dedicated his life to working with low-income children in inner cities. As one of the leading advocates for public education reform and the author of three prize-winning books about his time with children in the South Bronx, Kozol is a steadfast champion of children subjected to poverty. Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America serves as his culminating work about his captivating journey, with them, of friendship, triumph, and loss.

As Jan Resseger points out in “Education and the Wealth Gap” in the September-October issue of Sojourners magazine, the unjust, systemic economic inequality in U.S. public education today harms the common good. Kozol writes with conviction and clarity that public education must be reformed to benefit all children, not just a select few.

Fire in the Ashes launched nationwide on August 28; he’s currently on a fall book tour. Sojourners assistant editor Elaina Ramsey, a former resident of the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, spoke with Kozol in early August.

Elaina Ramsey: What compelled you to write Fire in the Ashes?
Jonathan Kozol: In the middle of the 1980s, I was drawn into the terrible struggles of the destitute families in New York. A religious friend of mine brought me to a homeless shelter in midtown Manhattan, a nightmarish place called the Martinique Hotel. It was a 17-story building packed with about 1600 children and their parents. I spent two or three years with families from that shelter. In 1990 and 1991, the city finally shut down that shelter and resettled them in the poorer sections of the South Bronx.              

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