NYC Mayor and Board of Education Want To Use Church Space For UPK Expansion

In recent months, Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked religious institutions to help with his expansion of prekindergarten in New York City. Who benefits the most from this arrangement? Should churches be serving the city in this way? Or are there better ways to help?

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On September 4th, 53,000 four year olds in New York City walked into a classroom for the very first time. Some of those classrooms are in community-based or faith-based organizations, including churches. By next year the mayor has promised an additional 20,000 openings. In an effort to generalize the UPK experience across such a diverse array of facilities, the NYC Board of Education has published a set of guidelines that are to be used by religious schools and other faith-based organizations.

Allow me to highlight a few of those guidelines:

  • Must agree to remove or cover all religious signs, names, identification, symbols, or insignias on the entrance to be used by students and on the interior of the building that will be used in connection with the UPK program.
  • Religious instruction is not permitted.
  • Texts from religious traditions (e.g. the Bible) may be used when presented objectively as part of a secular education.
  • Instruction may focus on characters and events in a story and cultural connections to a text.

In some respect the mayor’s office is being gracious to faith-based organizations that are willing to open their doors to his signature program. With the ongoing discussion of separation of church and state, the mayor’s office has done its best to address what is and is not permissible. The Bible, for example, may be permitted if it is used objectively alongside other secular education.That’s slightly better than what you would get in the public school setting where the Bible is taboo.

On the other hand, a church that has to cover or remove a cross Monday through Friday seems tedious at best. And how do you even begin to teach stories from the Bible in an objective way that only highlights the characters, events and historical culture? The Bible is about God and His story takes place within history alongside other Biblical characters. But He’s the main event.

“Allowing” a church to teach a sanitized and secularized and state approved version of the Bible is like allowing children to watch the movie Spiderman as long as they don’t see anyone in a red and blue superhero costume.

How about a real example? Can you tell the story of David and Goliath as long as you don’t mention the part where David says “I come against you in the name of Yahweh of Hosts, the God of Israel’s armies — you have defied Him”?

Or, as the  New York Times put it:

The biblical story of Noah’s Ark will be taught, without mention of who told Noah to build it. Challah, the Jewish bread eaten on the Sabbath, will be baked, but no blessings said over it. Some crucifixes will be removed, but others left hanging.

These are the kinds of church-state gymnastics that New York City and some religious schools are performing as Mayor Bill de Blasio expands government-funded prekindergarten.

Church-State Gymnastics

But these “church-state gymnastics” aren’t the only ones being performed in New York City. For more than 20 years the NYC Board of Education has been fighting to keep churches from renting public school facilities on Sundays.

The latest ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals happened in April 2014. They ruled that the Board of Education’s policy is constitutional. Their reason was for the Establishment Clause concerns that might otherwise arise.

Some of the arguments the Second Circuit put forward back in 2011 against church use of vacant public school facilities are

  • “When worship services are performed in a place, the nature of the site changes.” (Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Educ. of City of New York, 650 F.3d 30. 2nd Cir. 2011. Id. At 41)
  • “The Board could also reasonably worry that the regular, long-term conversion of schools into state-subsidized churches on Sundays would violate the Establishment Clause by reason of public perception of endorsement. . . . The possibility of perceived endorsement is made particularly acute by the fact that [public] schools used by churches are attended by young and impressionable students, who might easily mistake the consequences of a neutral policy for endorsement.” (Id. At 42)

So, they believe a secular space can magically become a sacred space and that’s a problem for people who don’t believe in God? And the NYC Board of Education believes that the students it is responsible for educating are ignorant enough to think their school is endorsing a church but not the dozens of other organizations that also use their facility after hours?

Churches that need space are simply asking for equal access to public facilities that many other clubs and organizations already have access to. These same churches are willing to pay rent. They are also willing to bless the teachers and students with supplies. Thousands of school rooms have been painted by volunteers from NYC churches. Much good has been done in the neighborhoods where churches are meeting in schools, but the Board of Education thinks there’s a slight chance that some of their own impressionable students might believe that their school endorses the church.

Back To School

Let’s revisit the UPK issue. Should the Board of Education be allowed to establish guidelines for what we put on our walls in our churches simply because they need our space? If a public school is thought to magically transform into a church when it is used on Sundays, will our churches be transformed into godless public schools when they are used Monday through Friday? If so, that transformation wouldn’t happen magically, it would happen naturally as we took the time to get out ladders and screwdrivers and cover or remove the symbols of our faith. And we are being asked to do that every week?

Honestly, I’m glad our church is not wrestling with a decision on this because there are no easy answers. We are a church that meets in a church building and we don’t have the space to accommodate the mayor’s plans for UPK expansion though we do pray for him and will do anything we can for the good of our community and for the glory of God. Where the mayor’s initiatives and our mission align in our community you will find us eager to help.

I can think of reasons why Christ-centered churches would desire to open their doors and serve their community by hosting a UPK and I can think of reasons why Christ-centered churches would not want to do the “church-state gymnastics”. Instead of giving my reasons, I would love to hear from pastors in NYC who agreed to let their space be used for the UPK expansion. How is the working relationship with the Board of Education? What are the challenges? What are the opportunities?

I would also love to hear from any teachers in a faith-based organization that hosts a city funded UPK program. How are you planning on using religious texts in an objective way? Are the guidelines fair?

Of course, everyone is invited to join the conversation as long as we keep our discourse friendly.

Nathan is the pastor of City Life Church in Ridgewood, NY. He and his family are committed to making and multiplying disciples in the most diverse county in the US. Read more about Nathan here. Visit the City Life Church website here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.