Court Says No to Worship in Schools

Court Says No to Worship in Schools

The United States Supreme Court declined this month to hear an appeal of a lower court’s decision to uphold the New York City Board of Education’s ban on holding worship services in public schools and one church facing eviction held a party to celebrate, according to its pastor, Rev. Sam Andreades.

UrbanFaith talked to Andreades in July after Katherine Stewart, author of the forthcoming The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, January 2012) mentioned his church in a New York Times op-ed column about the issue. Stewart had said it was “hard to imagine” how The Village Church was “representative” of the Greenwich Village community, given its affiliation with the homosexual “recovery” organization Exodus International.This week, we talked to both Andreades and Stewart about the Supreme Court’s decision.

Rejoicing in Inconvenience

Andreades said it means The Village Church will have to find new worship space by February 12, 2012. The congregation is small and considering studio space that is comparable in price to what it paid PS 3 in fees, he said. After the decision came down, Andreades was contacted by a representative of New York City councilman and pastor Fernando Cabrera about supporting new legislation that would permit religious groups to use public school space for worship, but he declined to participate in that pursuit.

“They’re trying to make a push for all the different religious organizations to contact their local council members and get their support for this. It’s bipartisan because actually politicians know that it’s ridiculous to alienate religious folks,” said Andreades, but he thinks the political route represents a missed opportunity.

“This is pretty clearly an effort of the New York Legal Association, the legal community, in conjunction with willing parties in the Board of Education to bring this discrimination. The legal reasoning is just so bizarre. Somehow doing worship in a space transubstantiates the space. That’s really weird. So I think it really qualifies as genuine persecution,” said Andreades.

(In the lower court decision, a judge had said that “when worship services are performed in a place … the nature of the site changes,” according to The New York Times.)

“Jesus and his disciples said that when you are actually experiencing suffering–and in this case it’s not even high level persecution, it’s kind of low level persecution—when you experience inconvenience is what this is, for the cause of Christ, for wearing the name of Christ, there’s only one appropriate response and that’s to rejoice,” Andreades explained.

Church/State Separation Guards Against Ill Will

Stewart disagreed (via email) with Andreades’ characterization of the court decision as discrimination.

“Just as it is possible to categorically exclude political groups from the schools without discriminating against any one particular political viewpoint, it is also possible to exclude religious worship as a category of activity from the schools without discriminating against any one religious viewpoint. It is not discrimination when religious groups of all stripes fail to get a subsidy from the state. And it is precisely to guard against the kind of ill will that inevitably ensues when that subsidy is revoked that the subsidy should not be demanded in the first place,” said Stewart.

“According to the New York City Department of Education, the churches in public schools were only paying custodial fees. They were not paying rent, nor did they pay for heating, air-conditioning, electricity, or furniture, and they had no leases. Such arrangements are a taxpayer subsidy to religious groups; if Andreades has a different arrangement, I would be eager to know,” she added.

Even if religious groups in public schools are paying market rent, Stewart thinks the arrangement “could still be problematic, though perhaps less so.”

“Schools are more than buildings, just as houses of worship are more than buildings. He and his group may be exercising good sense in their approach to the school children in the local community, but there are a number of other cases in which religious groups that happened to be located in schools wished to approach kids or use their association with the school in inappropriate ways,” she explained.

Relationships Matter

Andreades wondered if Stewart really understands the relationships that exist between congregations and the school communities that host them. Although he doesn’t think the principal of PS 3 ever wanted a relationship with The Village Church, the custodial staff is “not happy” about the situation, he said, because it has good relationships with members of the congregation and because custodians will lose income. Parents “aren’t thrilled” either, he said, in part because the church provides a Parents Night Out service to the community once a month.

“I imagine that we could still do it at the school, because that’s not a worship service,” said Andreades. “It’s just to bless the parents and give the kids a fun time.”

Funding Equals Government Endorsement

While Stewart appreciates that Andreades and his congregants “feel that the presence of their faith community is beneficial to many people,” she said, “One of the reasons we have such a vibrant and diverse religious landscape here in the United States is the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government endorsement – widely interpreted to include direct subsidies or funding — of any particular denomination or form of faith.”

“It may seem convenient now to use school facilities as houses of worship, but think about the long-term; if school administrators and city officials are put in positions where they have to make judgments or mediate disputes about religion, both religion and education will suffer,” argued Stewart.

Praying for a Place to Worship

Andreades has not had much discussion with pastors of other churches impacted by the decision, he said, but he has been in contact with the Bronx Household of Faith, the church at the center of the legal battle, and said the church is asking for prayer that it can find a new place to meet for worship. To read the prayer that Andreades composed and that The Village Church prayed after news broke of the Supreme Court decision, go to page 2.

What do you think?

Is this a case of religious discrimination or did the courts make the right decision?

(more…)

Forgiving Kim Jong-Il

Forgiving Kim Jong-Il

FAREWELL 'DEAR LEADER': Kim Jong-Il, the North Korean dictator who died on Dec. 17 at age 69, will be remembered for turning his impoverished country into a nuclear-weapons player. (Photo: Kcna/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

Since I am the daughter and my children are the grandsons of a North Korean refugee, the plight of North Korea is a frequent topic of discussion in our family. My sons are 9 years old and younger, but they have already formed strong opinions about the leaders of the nation that was once their grandfather’s homeland. Just a week ago, my 6-year-old prayed the following: “God please bless everyone, except Kim Jong-Il.”

When we asked him why he prayed in this particular way, he replied, “He’s a bad, bad man. I don’t love him. I hate him.”

It doesn’t matter how many times we try to tell them that God wants us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). My kids don’t understand what could possibly motivate a man to ignore the suffering of so many people that he is supposed to be leading and caring about.

When I heard the news on Monday evening about Kim Jong-Il’s passing, I found myself shedding tears not of sadness but of anger toward him, toward his father Kim Il-Sung, and towards all those in power in a nation that invests more in its nuclear and military armament than in feeding its starving population. And I realized that I am much closer to my kids’ sentiments than I might care to admit.

I think of my father, who was 13 years old when he left his home country on foot, traveling with his own father and his brother in order to avoid being conscripted into the escalating conflict between the Communist-leaning north and democratic-leaning south halves of Korea. Their trip took 15 days and included a 40-minute harrowing venture across chest-high, freezing water to cross the Taedong River in Pyongyang at night. (You can view an amazing Pulitzer Prize-winning photo here of Korean refugees trying to climb across the remains of the main bridge over the Taedong. This was taken on the same exact day that my father left North Korea: December 4, 1950.)

When he departed from home that frigid December night, 61 years ago, my dad said goodbye to his mother who’d stayed behind to try to convince her brothers to also head south, and assumed he’d be back home in a week or two. But he never saw his mother again. Theirs is a story all too common amongst Koreans in my father’s generation; countless numbers of Korean families were personally affected or were close to someone devastated by the effects of the Korean War, which left behind a tragic legacy of separated or permanently altered families. Officially, the Korean War is actually still ongoing; certainly in the minds and hearts of the Korean people, this conflict and its far-reaching personal consequences have remained far from forgotten.

My dad, who just turned 74 years old, is pessimistic about the prospect of any type of positive change in North Korea. He tells me, “My main worry is for the people who are innocent victims, all those people who just happened to be born in North Korea and who live there. No other country wishes to unify Korea or engage in any risky attempts to overthrow the regime. This all means I won’t be able to see any bright future in North Korea in my lifetime. It’s so, so sad!”

I will be honest: I cannot conjure even a shred of remorse or sadness about Kim Jong-Il’s passing. Although he personally had nothing to do with the circumstances leading to my dad’s family story, in my mind he represents the very worst of mankind, and how its evils can deliver countless decades of misery into the lives of ordinary human beings.

There is a part of me that is even glad for Kim’s passing, if only because it brings the tragic story of the Korean peninsula back into present-day focus. Regardless of what we may think of North Korea’s past and present leaders, regardless of whether we are of Korean descent or not, we all need to be aware that the North Korean story is not just one of a seemingly endless reign of despotic rulers, but also of countless numbers of families experiencing decades upon decades of grief and sadness.

I am grateful for organizations such as Crossing Borders and LiNK, which are both involved in the dangerous and critical work of assisting and advocating for North Koreans refugees, and The Saemsori Project, which is helping to reunite long-separated Korean families. (You can see Saemsori’s interview with my father on YouTube here.) These organizations may not be able to do anything to ensure humane leadership in the post-Kim Jong-Il era. But the work they are doing has eternal value as they strive for North Korean refugees and immigrants to experience both freedom and family anew.

Meanwhile, I will strive to teach my sons that the best way to “love the enemy” in North Korea is not to embrace hatred, but to support organizations such as these, and to continue to pray and press toward a future in which the North Koreans there and abroad experience no more dying, no more crying, no more hurting. It may not happen in my father’s lifetime, or in my lifetime, or even in my kids’ lifetime. But one day, hopefully sooner than later, we know that the old order will pass away, in North Korea and anyplace else where tyranny currently reigns over liberty.

And as we pray for justice to roll down, may we never forget the millions upon millions who have suffered, lost, and perished along the way.

Helen is currently editing her father’s memoir about his life as a North Korean refugee living in the U.S.