Prayer in public schools: No place to bend the knee

A LARGE sign outside PS 150, a public school in Queens, encourages students to “KEEP READING!”. On Sundays another sign appears, temporarily fixed to the school fence, that says “Grace Fellowship Church”. Grace Fellowship, a Presbyterian congregation, owns no space of its own, so it pays the Department of Education about $1,400 a month for the use of the auditorium in PS 150. But because of a court battle its 90 or so members face having nowhere to pray.

About 60 churches, mostly Christian but also Buddhist, Jewish and Hindu congregations, rent space from New York City’s Department of Education. But the city authorities have been trying to enforce a ban on worship in schools since 1996. Court rulings have swung between the two sides for years. February 12th was supposed to have been the last Sunday on which religious groups were legally permitted to use public schools for services. But a federal judge intervened and ruled that churches could continue to use schools while the case is subject to yet more review. And on February 29th an appeals court decided they could stay until mid-June when, supposedly, a final ruling will be made.

The separation of church and state is sacrosanct in America, yet for some, like the Republican contender Rick Santorum (see Lexington) the line between the two is neither clearly defined nor in the right place. Student-led religious activities are permitted in many schools, but prayer in the classroom, when led by teachers, is not. Religious groups are allowed to meet after hours in public schools in many districts, including Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles. In New York, despite the activity in the courts, religious instruction, hymn singing and prayers all go on when schools are not in session.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) says allowing worship in school buildings sends out the message that the government favours Christian churches, as they can use them more easily than groups who worship on days when they are open. (Most Muslims, for instance, have Fridays as their principal day of prayer, ruling out the use of schools.) This violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion, reckons Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU.

Meanwhile, in Albany, the state capital, the Senate has passed a bill which would allow worship in schools. But Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, thinks the bill’s language is too broad, and might open up schools to the likes of the Ku Klux Klan. The bill sits in limbo while battle continues in the courts.

Before the latest decision, Jon Storck, Grace Fellowship’s pastor, was worried what his congregation would do if it had to leave the school. One idea was to share a church with another Presbyterian community. Other churches looked for new homes, too. One leased space at a local cinema; another found shelter in a golf club. Some considered merging with other congregations, a couple nearly disbanded. At least one held services outdoors. Whatever happens, though, Pastor Storck is confident the Lord will provide.

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