After my post yesterday, I figured we might as well continue the discussion with another church-state issue I saw in the news recently. The New York Times reported on a court case over the ability of churches to rent public school buildings for Sunday services. New York City, like many other school districts, apparently allows community groups to rent rooms in schools during time the school isn’t being used. This seems like a totally reasonable policy to me. Of course, one popular community group weekend activity is church services, so churches have been renting rooms on Sunday mornings for their services. The city wanted to create a special rule against these rented rooms being used for religious services, because they were worried that the services create an appearance of the state endorsing Christianity.
The court ruled for the city, but I’ve got to say I think I come down with the churches on this one. We’re talking about a general policy of availability for anyone who wants it. As I said yesterday, my preferred version of First Amendment interpretation is that religious groups need to be treated just like every other group. You obviously can’t give them preferential access to these rooms, but you shouldn’t give them less-than-standard access either.
I should say that I don’t think the decision is crazy. The city of course has a respectable goal, and I can imagine people perceiving the endorsement.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president, said that among the top complaints FFRF gets is churches using tax-supported public schools as their primary place of worship. “The low rental prices amount to taxpayer subsidy of worship. Huge religious banners, planted on public school property on weekends, are sometimes left up nearly permanently. We have had complaints about used diapers left in classrooms and school swimming pools routinely used for baptisms. Public school names are used in advertising and fliers with no disclaimers.”
The thing is, these seem to me like reservation policy enforcement problems, rather than issues with the reservation system itself. A general policy — one not put in place as a sneaky way to help churches — isn’t actually an endorsement, and anyone who cares enough to investigate the policy should be able to figure that out. There are some other factors in play, of course. There tend to be more spaces available on Sundays than on Saturdays or weekdays (presumably when school programs are more likely to be scheduled), so Christians get better access than Jews or Muslims. And of course that’s not entirely a coincidence, since the modern weekend comes from Christian (and Jewish) weekly holy days. That said, unless you think having government offices closed on Sundays is a violation of church-state separation (and for the record, I don’t), then I think you have to be okay with this. Sometimes particular government policies just happen to mesh better with the teachings of some particular religions, but as long as they’re generally applied and weren’t passed for those reasons, that’s just the way it is.