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N.Y. mayor renews pledge to churches

NEW YORK (BP) — Churches can continue to worship in New York public schools, at least temporarily, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review a lower court decision barring worship services in schools there, Mayor Bill de Blasio said March 30.

The mayor’s pledge came within hours after the court decided, without comment, to leave in place a New York City Board of Education rule barring churches from worshipping in city schools. Even though the city has previously defended the rule set in place in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, de Blasio issued a statement March 30 saying he would not evict churches from schools.

The de Blasio administration “remains committed to ensuring that religious organizations are able to use space in city schools on the same terms provided to other groups,” de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell said. “Now that litigation has concluded, the city will develop ‘rules of the road’ that respect the rights of both religious groups and non-participants.”

New York Southern Baptist Pastor Ray Parascando applauded the mayor’s decision, but said the Supreme Court should have heard the case to set a proper precedent not dependent upon a politician’s whim.

“I think it sets a dangerous precedent and it sends a message that these matters are not important; they’re very important,” Parascando told Baptist Press, nonetheless voicing respect for the court. “As we saw in the last mayoral administration, Mayor Bloomberg really pressed the case, and churches were put out for a period of time. The next mayor, after mayor de Blasio, he or she could have an opinion that we don’t want churches there, and it could cause another problem and an upheaval.”

National leaders need to stand up as leaders on such important matters as religious freedom, said Parascando, pastor of Crossroads Church in Staten Island that met in Public School 52 for more than four years. Parascando estimates 65–80 churches currently worship and hold other gatherings in New York public schools.

“I think the more we try to strip away religious freedom or refuse to deal with it and deem it as unimportant, the more of a concern our country will have,” Parascando said. “It is disappointing that the Supreme Court doesn’t step up and protect our freedoms. Because after all, that should be one of the things they do.”

Parascando said he is looking forward to the ‘rules of the road’ de Blasio will set to regulate meetings in schools.

“Now as to what those rules are going to be, we hope they’ll be congruent with the mayor’s promise that religious worship can continue on school grounds,” Parascando said. “I await with eager expectation to see those rules and to make sure that they are not something that would infringe upon our beliefs, but encourage us to practice them.”

But even if de Blasio keeps his pledge, things could change during the next mayor’s term, Parascando said.

“That’s why the Supreme Court needs to rule on it. If you remember in Genesis, Joseph [Jacob’s son] had so much favor. And then in Exodus,” it says the new pharaoh did not know Joseph, Parascando said.

Crossroads Church has moved its worship services to a former theater, but still uses a public school to hold a month-long summer camp, and Friday evening youth programs on alternating weekends.

“Even though we have a place where we meet for church, we’re still very involved with the school and using it. And then, the church since 2006 has painted public schools for free. It’s a unique partnership we have where we do it in all five Burroughs,” Parascando said. “So even though this has happened, we’ve still remained committed to painting and caring for the schools, regardless of what at the time Mayor Bloomberg was doing, or now the Supreme Court. We’ve had a connection and a strong love for public schools, the students, the faculty, and the department of education, before all of this happened, and we’ll continue to have it well after decisions are made.”

In a February Bloomberg News report, de Blasio voiced his support for churches to meet in schools, even after his administration defended the ban in court.

“This is something that, for years and years, went on in our schools without contradicting the separation between church and state, based on a group having to apply, having to wait its turn in line, having to pay rent,” Bloomberg news reported.

In the case, Bronx Household of Faith vs. Board of Education of the City of New York, the de Blasio administration defended the ban “to preserve its prerogative to issue rules governing the use of public school facilities after hours by various groups, including faith-based organizations,” de Blasio’s spokesman said in a February report in Bloomberg News.

In a Jan. 12 brief presented to the court, the city said the board’s “decision to make public schools available to religious organizations for a wide range of activities, but not for worship services or as a house of worship, is constitutional,” World News reported. “The policy does not prohibit, limit, or burden any religious practice; does not entangle the government in matters of religion; and does not impair petitioners’ ability to speak freely.”