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Empty Buildings

It’s no secret that Christianity has been unwelcome in public schools for a long time. But recently New York City’s government took an unprecedented step by forcing around 60 churches to vacate sanctuaries they pay to use.

Why? Because Monday through Friday, those sanctuaries also happen to be classrooms.

This deadline was set back in December, when the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the 2nd Circuit’s decision upholding the city’s crass discrimination against communities of faith. New York at this time is the only major city in the nation to ban religious services in its school buildings. But this precedent does not bode well for what may happen in other cities.

The reasoning behind this decision was ludicrous. In his ruling, Circuit Judge Pierre Leval claimed that renting school property to churches implies “an unintended bias in favor of Christian religions” that makes public schools look like “state-sponsored Christian churches … but not synagogues or mosques.”

New York City Department of Education spokeswoman Marge Feinberg agreed: “Public school space[s] …  which are funded by taxpayers’ dollars … cannot and should not be used for worship services, especially because school space is not equally available to all faiths.”

Hogwash. The last I checked, Muslim and Jewish groups weren’t standing in line waiting for a room on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

But more than that, it’s out of touch, both with history and reality. Public schools and churches in this nation have always shared space, dating back to the early, single-teacher schools that met in church buildings on the frontier. And today around the nation, thousands of congregations meet every week in public schools. If that’s a government endorsement of Christianity, then what about the millions of Americans who will cast their ballots this November in church buildings?

In addition to their blatant discrimination, city officials are also shooting themselves in the fiscal foot and harming the community.

By renting space, New York churches help alleviate budget shortfalls — something which, according to Fernando Santos of The New York Times — has hit the city’s schools hard. Without religious tenants, schools will find themselves further in the hole and may have to lay off more employees, including teachers.

Tim Keller, my good friend and pastor of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian, says, “Family stability, resources for those in need, and compassion for the marginalized are all positive influences that neighborhood churches provide.” He’s right. George Russ of the New York Metropolitan Baptist Association noted that some churches have “purchased furniture for the teacher's lounge; they've given video equipment to the schools. They've done so many thank-you kinds of projects."

But all this apparently means nothing to New York bureaucrats and the Circuit Court in their effort to expunge religion from public life.

Christians introduced the virtue or tolerance into Western civilization, and we cherish it to this day. But apparently our faith is too much for the New York City government to tolerate in its empty buildings — even long after the bell has rung.

Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.

Publication dateFebruary 17, 2012

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