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?


Out in Greenwich Village

Out in Greenwich Village

Rev. Sam Andreades

The big news out of New York last weekend was the legalization of gay marriage, but The Village Church in Greenwich Village is under threat of eviction from the public school where it meets and a New York Times op-ed writer says it should be because its ministry to people struggling with unwanted same-sex attraction doesn’t represent the community. News & Religion editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to the church’s senior pastor, Sam A. Andreades, about the church and it’s unique position as the only Exodus International affiliate church in New York City. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Urban Faith: The Village Church was mentioned in a recent New York Times op-ed about a legal battle over churches renting space from city schools. What is the legal challenge that you’re facing?

Rev. Sam Andreades: One church, the Bronx Household of Faith, represented by the Alliance Defence Fund, has been in a legal battle with the New York City Department of Education over whether public schools should be allowed to rent space to churches on Sundays. This effects the 60 or 70 churches that rent public school space in New York. Although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a closely-related issue (in favor of religious freedom) a few years ago, the New York Second Circuit Court ruled against the churches. Since an appeal has been filed, the ruling does not take effect immediately, but the future of churches meeting in schools is uncertain.

The reason [Katherine Stewart] mentioned The Village Church by name is because she said we were running this [Gender Affirming Ministry Endeavor] and that she didn’t think we were representative of the Village. That’s what I responded to [in an article on the church website] and said, “No.”

Has Stewart contacted you since then?

No. We sent our piece to The New York Times, but for whatever reason they declined to publish a response.

The two main ministries listed on your church website are the Mercy Network and the Gender Affirming Ministry Endeavor (GAME). Did you start both of those?

Mercy was here as part of the church since the beginning. It’s been going through different iterations over the years and it’s done some really neat things. We’re looking for more to do.

GAME was something I decided we needed to do. It took a few years of praying about it for the right leadership to come along, because I would go into the gay bars and I would go to some of the transvestite parties in the Village, but I kind of lacked credibility because it’s not really my issue. I could get to know folks and see how we could help, but I realized it really needed [a leader] for whom this is an issue, but who is following Christ while having same-sex desires. … We have a great lay leader with the ministry now. I don’t give out his name because, for the group, confidentiality is very important.

If somebody wants to come to the group, we meet with them first and see if we can be of help to them. The people who come to the group, many of them aren’t in The Village Church. They come from other churches. We realized after we started it that this is actually a gift to other churches in New York, because …people come here and they have a place to be open about it, and not necessarily have this known about in their congregation.

Is it a pretty active ministry?

We get one or two inquiries a week, I would say, from people who are interested. Some of those decide not to be involved and some of them get involved. So we’ve had a fluctuating size of ten or twelve on a weekly basis. For a while we had a women’s GAME group, but that is taking a hiatus right now.

Is that because of disinterest or not having a leader?

It seemed to come naturally to a close in terms of interest and leadership. We’re certainly trying to address women who inquire, but we’re seeing if there will be enough interest in the fall to have a group for women.

How is the church’s relationship with the local gay community?

I think part of the reason nobody has picketed or protested is because we’re kind of under the radar. We’re not a very big organization. We have this support group and people who want to come come. We’re not big enough to cause a lot of discomfort.

The Village Church is the only church in New York City listed as an Exodus International affiliate. What is your relationship to the organization?

There’s a level of connection where you become an official Exodus ministry. We’re kind of waiting to see how we do. We might do that in the future, but as of this moment we’re just part of their church network and then GAME is a ministry of our church.

Is Greenwich Village as diverse as people assume it to be?

Racially it’s not as diverse, but that’s changing as the immigrant population is making its way into the core. … We have a lot of racial diversity in the visitors, but it’s still very white and very affluent. Diversity of viewpoints, that’s a different thing. Diversity of worldviews, that we have.

It’s got its layers. There’s a layer of older population that have made their lives here and many of them have rent-controlled or rent-subsidized apartments and they’re going away slowly. That’s one layer. You have New York University, which has made its home here and is gobbling up various parts of the Village, so it’s a kind of university situation as well. And then you have people who choose to live here if they can … because it’s more bohemian [than the upper east side or the upper west side]. You get people who may be in different occupations, but they don’t fit in the grid. Their views can be anything. The Village sort of attracts the eclectic and the unconventional. For a lot of the couples here, one of them is an artist and the other one works on Wall Street or works in the financial district, because to get a place here, somebody has to be making money.

And the gay community has a presence as well?

Yeah, the center of things has kind of moved into Chelsea, which is the neighborhood to the north, but it’s still the Village.

How did you come to pastor in Greenwich Village?

I’ve always had a non-conformist streak. My wife and I actually met in the Village and I went to school here for a master’s degree. I used to be a street musician; I would play at different places around the Village. A lot of threads of our lives come together in the Village. It was always very important to me to see Christianity applied and the culture engaged as part of the emphasis of my own faith. The Village seemed like a great place to conduct Christ’s revolution as we say, because Jesus was the ultimate non-conformist, so it just made a lot of sense. … The Village Church was planted here out of Redeemer Presbyterian 16 years ago by another pastor. … I’m the third pastor, but I’ve been here the longest. I’ve been here eight-and-a-half years.

What is your goal as an urban minister?

What I want to do is what we say is our vision, which is to bring about Christ’s revolution to exemplify in the Village urban eternal life, meaning to see the life of Christ manifest in people in a place where history is going. History is going towards a city, right. So, we want the see the life of Christ manifest in city people.

What are the unique challenges to accomplishing that goal?

Any revolution is an engagement in the midst of resistance. Not everybody wants to see that happen, so it’s helping to overcome that resistance by moral suasion that I think is our big challenge.

Another big challenge that’s more prosaic is building community because New York City, especially Greenwich Village, is a stopping place for many people on their way somewhere else. … It’s very difficult to build community for people to come and stay, and say, “Yeah, we want to see this vision happen here,” and be able to commit to that for more than a few years. We have a high turn over. That’s part of what my wife and I are trying to do, is show people that you can raise your kids in the city and they turn out okay. It’s actually glorious.