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How Long Will Churches Meet in Public Schools?

July 22, 2011

Every Sunday, thousands of churches across the U.S. meet in public school gymnasiums, auditoriums, and other spaces after paying a permit fee and gaining the permission of the district. Because schools rarely have activities on Sundays, the situation seems perfect—or is it?

The New York City Department of Education has been trying for nearly 10 years to forbid houses of worship from congregating in public schools. Their reasoning: Public schools are “improperly advancing religion” by offering churches a nominal fee and effectively showing favoritism to congregations that meet on Sundays (Jews and Muslims meet on Fridays and Saturdays, when the facilities are often not available for public use). A NYC judge also wrote that, since the performance of church rites occurs on school grounds for a time, the school effectively becomes a church temporarily. Hence, churches in New York City meeting in public schools have no security that they will be able to continue to do so, and it brings into question whether other church meetings in schools will be brought into jeopardy.

According to a statement to the USA Today, the Acts 29 Network, an interdenominational organization specializing in church planting, estimates that 16 percent of the 350 schools they started in the past five years meet in schools. In 2007, a LifeWay survey of new Protestant churches said 12 percent of them meet in schools.

In an opinion column with the Associated Baptist Press, Jim Denison, president of the Center for Informed Faith and theologian-in-residence for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, argued that worship on a school campus does not change the nature of the facility: “Does a Boy Scout meeting make the school a campsite?” He also claims that the favoritism logic is flawed: “By this logic,” he says, “schools could be utilized only be those whose traditions prohibit their use when they are available. The fact that facilities are more available on Sundays also makes them more accessible to those who do not attend worship services—is this a bias in their favor?” Of the argument, Denison concludes, “Does holding a church service in a public school imply an endorsement of a particular religion? Only to the degree that the school endorses any extracurricular group it permits to use its facilities.”  

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Toni Ridgaway is a content editor for the Outreach Web Network, including churchleaders.com and SermonCentral.com.