For years, small churches have been meeting in New York City public schools. Some want cheap rental space, and others are part of a "church planting" movement. The idea is to "plant" congregations, often in unconventional settings, to attract the unaffiliated.
A federal court last year ruled that these school gatherings violate the separation of church and state. The congregations now have one week left to vacate.
The Bible tells of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, before entering the Promised Land. On a recent Sunday, Pastor Jon Storck joked that he envied the Israelites' mobile temple, called the Tabernacle.
"It's too bad we don't have a transportable worship area," Storck told Grace Fellowship Church, during a sermon about the superiority of faith and grace over bricks, mortar and other worldly attachments.
Grace Fellowship has been gathering at PS-150 in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., since 2006, but is scheduled to be evicted in a week by the city's Department of Education. The Presbyterian-affiliated church gets about 80 regulars and newcomers a week.
The city rents school space to hundreds of different organizations — including dozens of churches. But since 1995, the city's Department of Education has been trying to evict religious groups in the name of separation of church and state.
The department gave the churches until Feb. 12 to vacate. Last week, the department provided a list of 53 churches with active permits to worship in schools, but it's not clear how many are still in auditoriums like the one at PS-150. Some contacted by WNYC have already found new homes, and others are weighing different options for the future.
Court rulings have gone back and forth. Last June, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city. The court said the city, in barring "worship services," was excluding "a type of activity" but wasn't being discriminatory. And it ruled the city was neither infringing on personal expression nor free speech under the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in December, effectively accepted that argument when it declined to hear an appeal.
State Sen. Martin Golden, a Brooklyn Republican, has sponsored a bill he says will override the distinction between religious clubs meeting in schools for education and edification, which is constitutional; and religious congregations making schools their own personal worship space, which isn't.
The Education Committee passed his bill by a 17-1 margin this past week, and Golden expects it to go to the full Senate before the churches' Feb. 12 eviction deadline.
A spokeswoman for his counterpart in the Assembly, Bronx Democrat Nelson Castro, said the committee is trying to get the bill on its agenda. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office has submitted a letter to the legislature asking it to defeat the bill, based on the federal court rulings.
The New York Civil Liberties Union says Golden is missing the point.
"You have a right to pray, of course. You have a right to worship. Freedom of religion is critical," said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But freedom for a church to take over a school and convert it to a house of worship is not what our Constitution stands for."
Storck isn't sure what Grace Fellowship's next move is. He said he has leads on a couple of rental spaces in Sunnyside, and could also temporarily bring his flock to an affiliated church in nearby Astoria. He's also considering applying for a permit to use PS-150 in ways that are constitutionally permitted and don't involve formal worship.
Fred Mogul reports for member station WNYC in New York.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
To New York City now, where small churches have been meeting in public schools for years. Some want cheap rental space. Others are part of a church planting movement. The idea is to plant congregations in unconventional settings to attract potential members. Last year, a federal court ruled that these school gatherings violate separation of church and state laws.
And as Fred Mogul, from member station WNYC reports, the congregations now have one week left to vacate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: For the past six years, Grace Fellowship Church has been meeting on Sundays in the auditorium of PS-150 in Queens. It looks like a lot of assembly halls in old red-brick schools with wooden seats, terrazzo floors and murals depicting scenes of art and culture.
When Rob Powers first started coming to Grace Fellowship, he felt a little bit like he was back in elementary school.
ROB POWERS: It was a little odd. But I mean its New York City, so you get use to stuff quickly.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOGUL: He says the non-traditional setting is part of the appeal.
POWERS: To me, the style of worship service is a big deal. So I'm not really into the huge congregation where you just blend in. So, it's nice to have a smaller, family-style worship.
MOGUL: As of last year, about 160 churches meeting in city schools. It's not clear how many still are. New York City has been trying to evict the churches for well over a decade. The city prevailed the last year when a federal appeals court defined what kind of religious groups can meet in schools and what kind can't.
DONNA LIEBERMAN: You have a right to pray, of course. You have a right to worship. Freedom of religion is critical.
MOGUL: Donna Lieberman leads the New York Civil Liberties Union, which joined New York City in the lawsuit.
LIEBERMAN: But freedom for a church to take over a school and convert it to a house of worship is not what our Constitution stands for.
MOGUL: The churches argue they're not taking over schools and they're not trying to convert anyone, a claim the NYCLU challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court has said religious clubs can meet in schools for Bible study, prayer and other explicitly religious activities. Yet, the High Court also accepted the appeals court decision that formal worship services are different than club activities, and violate the separation of church and state.
Back at PS-150, Grace Fellowship congregants are eating pizza in the school cafeteria after services. Pastor Jon Storck says the church has helped build and repair things at the school, and both sides benefit from the church's presence there. He's applied to the city for a new permit to rent space for the activities that are allowed.
REVEREND JON STORCK: The Court is not banning prayer and religious instruction and singing of hymns. They're just banning that in the context of a worship service. So, we would stop having church worship. But come together and eat together, we probably have basically - you got Sunday school class.
MOGUL: The city's Department of Education wouldn't comment on Grace Fellowship's application. The church has a temporary place to worship after next Sunday, but members are praying there'll be way for them to stay in school.
For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.