Council Members Join Protest

More than 150 protesters, led by New York City clergy, were joined by several members of the city council Wednesday at a press conference on the steps of the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan. UrbanFaith talked to several protesters, including two pastors who were previously arrested for trespassing and disorderly conduct as they rallied against the impending eviction of houses of worship from the city’s public schools.

Threatening Community Partnerships

Rev. Rick Del Rio, pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries, said the threatened February 12 eviction of his church from PS/MS 34 on the lower east side of Manhattan is “very difficult” because his congregation mostly serves poor members of a neighborhood that is increasingly being gentrified.

SPEAKING OUT: Tianna Williams joined others to confront NYC's controversial law restricting houses of worship from meeting in schools. (Photo: Christine A. Scheller)

“We’re going to survive because this is God’s church. However, we’ve been in real partnership with the city. … We have been doing things that the city hasn’t had to do and we didn’t use any city money to do it,” said Del Rio.

Del Rio, a 30-year New York City ministry veteran, also serves as a volunteer clergy liaison for the New York City Police Department. The NYPD sometimes calls him to intervene in tense neighborhood situations, he said.

“One time there was a murder that took place and there was going to be a gang war there. They asked me to intervene and talk to these kids. I took the whole gang to my house where we lived on 6th street and we served them hot chocolate and sandwiches and were able to defuse the situation and there was no retaliation that took place,” said Del Rio.

Paying a Price for Solidarity

Rev. Michael Carrion, pastor of The Promised Land Covenant Church, has been arrested twice for protesting the policy, even though it doesn’t directly affect his congregation.

“It affects my Bronx. I’m in solidarity,” said Carrion, who is facing two court dates from his arrests. “It is a small price to pay for my community.”

Standing Up for the Marginalized

DEFIANT CLERGY: (From left) Rev. José Humphreys, Rev. Ruben Austria, Rev. Michael Carrion, and Rev. Efrain Alicea. (Photo: Christine A. Scheller)

Rev. José Humphreys, pastor of Metro Hope Church, was arrested at the previous rally as well. Like Carrion, his church doesn’t meet in a public school. He said he didn’t wake up that morning thinking he would be arrested, but was prepared for the possibility.

“It was something that we believed in, because … whenever the marginalized, the poor, the disavowed are affected by unjust policies, when policies no longer serve their constituents, I think it’s a mandate for the church to step in and represents these people,” said Humphreys.

Civil Rights Movement Inspiration

“As a student of the civil rights movement, I think it’s always a good thing when the people of faith stand up and speak truth to power. I hope this movement continues … with the church standing up for all sorts of things where the poor are being affected,” said Rev. Ruben Austria, executive director of Community Connections for Youth, an organization that works to provide alternatives to incarceration for young people caught up in the juvenile justice system.

Could This Policy Spread?

Both Carrion’s and Humphreys’ churches are affiliated with the Evangelical Covenant Church. Humphreys said the denomination is “keeping a close eye on what’s happening in New York” because many of its congregations meet in public schools across the country.

Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) senior counsel Jordan Lorence told members of the media that New York City’s policy has been in place for 30-40 years, but that a 2002 federal injunction against The Bronx Household of Faith put other houses of worship at risk. (In that case, Bronx Household of Faith was represented by ADF.)

“It’s not required for the school district to keep it. They can get rid of the policy,” he said. “The mayor can do that. The state legislature can do that.”

“Of the largest 50 school districts in the country in terms of student population, only New York City has a policy banning worship services on the weekends or weeknights in the public schools,” said Lorence.

UrbanFaith asked Lorence if the New York City policy has the potential to spread to other municipalities. He said that although legal precedent should prevent similar policies from being enacted in other municipalities, “this does have the potential to be a problem elsewhere.”

“These policies were more frequent and common 30 years ago. A series of lawsuits, some of them going to the Supreme Court, have struck all of these down, or they’ve just been repealed because school districts say, ‘It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Lorence.

He described New York City as “the last stronghold of this extreme view of separation of church and state, that the govenment has to basically drive out private religious speakers that are clearly not state sponsored, in order to show that they’re neutral towards religion.”

After the press conference, the protesters marched around the block to the city’s bi-weekly council meeting to urge members to overturn the school worship ban.

What do you think?

Is the New York City worship ban a violation of the civil rights of religious citizens?

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