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Religious groups now searching for the right place to pray

Sunday was the last day religious groups can worship in city public schools.  Department of Education kicked out congregations, saying it violates the separation of church and state.

Rev. Sam Andreades scouted a karate studio, an auditorium at New York University and an off-Broadway theater as possible places for his church, which is now homeless.

Andreades leads The Village Church, which, up until yesterday, met weekly at PS 3 in the West Village.

His church is one of about 160 religious congregations citywide that regularly met in public schools on the weekends, often paying a small fee to use classrooms and auditoriums sitting vacant of students. But the Department of Education gave them until Sunday, Feb. 12, to stop using the schools, after an ongoing legal battle between the city and the religious groups.

Churches argue it's their right to use the empty space, comparing themselves to sports teams and community boards, which also meet in schools during off hours. But others, like the New York Civil Liberties Union, protested that the arrangement violates the separation of church and state. In June, a U.S. appeals court sided with the city, confirming the DOE's right to prohibit the worship services.

A bill in Albany could allow the religious groups to return to schools, if it's passed. But in the meantime, pastors are forced to hit the streets to find new real estate.

Kerrick Thomas, the pastor at The Journey Church, said public schools were an affordable option when his group first began meeting in Manhattan 10 years ago.

“If you need a certain size meeting space, or say you’re starting a new church, property in Manhattan is astronomical,” he said. “It narrows it down pretty quickly.”

The Journey used to host three services in schools. Now, at double the rent, he points out, he's moved his Upper West Side service from Louis D. Brandeis High School to the Directors Guild Theater. In Queens, instead of meeting at Forest Hills High School, his members will now gather at the nearby United Artists Midway movie theater.

It’s not just Christian groups that used the schools. Rabbi Steven Burton told Metro his Shaarei Shalom congregation in the Bronx will stop holding their High Holy Day celebrations at PS 24 after five years of doing so.

“We always knew it was an issue that could be decided one way or the other,” he said, of the DOE's decision to evict religious groups. “It is not, I think, a black-and-white issue.”

Parents have mixed feelings

When asked what they think about religious services being held at schools on the weekends, public school parents were split on the issue:

“I’m actually not at all religious in any way, and it doesn’t bother me,” said Park Slope mom Heidi Flanagan. “It’s a great way for schools to make extra money.”

But her husband, Peter Kendall, disagreed. “I think there would always be some sense of approval of that particular denomination, whatever it might be. And unfortunately, along with a hint of approval, you get a hint of disapproval.”

Kate Harrison, a mom of a 10-year-old at PS 3, where The Village Church meets, said she thinks church should be separate. “I don’t want my particular tax dollars supporting religion.”

Searching for a new space

After meeting at PS 3 in the Village for two years, Rev. Sam Andreades has yet to confirm a spot for next Sunday.

“It’s probably going to be an off-Broadway theater or rehearsal space,” he said, adding that he estimates the cost could be $400, twice the $200 they paid to use the school.

Kerrick Thomas, a pastor at The Journey Church, said his Sunday night service in the Village also still needs a space. “It’s been interesting,” he said. “We had about a month to find three brand-new meeting locations.”

Many members say they prefer to stay in schools

Celina Durgin, 18, attends Apostles Church, which is moving its services to a private school on the Upper East Side. She said she wouldn't mind if other religious groups — for example, a Muslim prayer group — met in public schools.

“I think the government doesn’t really have a right to do what it’s doing,” she said.

Salley Whitman, 36, attends Lower Manhattan Community Church, which, up until yesterday, met at PS 89 in Battery Park City. Her children attend school there during the week. “When a building is sitting empty on the weekends, and they have a way of earning revenue, I do think it helps the schools,” she said.

Follow Alison Bowen on Twitter @AlisonatMetro

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