By now, you’ve probably heard that the Supreme Court has denied certiorari in the Bronx Household of Faith case, letting stand an appellate court’s ruling that the New York City Board of Education can refuse to make public school space available to churches, many of which will be hard-pressed to find affordable worship space in the five Boroughs.
The appellate opinion splits hairs, upholding the Board policy on the ground that it prohibits certain activities in which a viewpoint may be expressed, rather than viewpoints themselves:
The prohibition against using school facilities for the conduct of religious worship services bars a type of activity. It does not discriminate against any point of view. The conduct of religious worship services, which the rule excludes, is something quite different from free expression of a religious point of view, which the Board does not prohibit. The conduct of services is the performance of an event or activity. While the conduct of religious services undoubtedly includes expressions of a religious point of view, it is not the expression of that point of view that is prohibited by the rule. Prayer, religious instruction, expression of devotion to God, and the singing of hymns, whether done by a person or a group, do not constitute the conduct of worship services. Those activities are not excluded.
It would be easy to be angry with the appellate court that handed down this decision, the Supreme Court that refused to reconsider it, the Board of Education that wished to avoid any appearance of favoring religion, or the Supreme Court (with its adoption of the very strained endorsement test) that in effect enabled the Board to reach that decision.
As this anger and frustration welled up, the group I was with turned to prayer, and my heart began to shift. Someone brought up the words of Jesus—things are going to be difficult when you follow him. It helped to think about Jesus. He was regularly asked to leave and chased out of town. He was also pretty stubborn in his love and forgiveness. The legal fight, which had started before our church and many others affected had even begun, was over. Now a new kind of struggle would begin—a struggle to love.
The Christian church in New York City has a great opportunity right now. For years, schools all over the city have graciously hosted us. This has given us a wonderful opportunity. We need to be grateful for that hospitality. In these final months as tenants, we need to show our gratitude, and the love of Jesus. The truth is that the schools in our neighborhoods did not make this choice. We have built strong friendships serving them, and them serving us, for years. We must find ways to keep showing them love in this new season as well. This is the way of Jesus.
But he also notes—quite rightly, I think—that if the judicial path has been closed, political paths remain open:
Our country was founded on the right of its citizenry to make free and informed decisions. Yet it seems that more and more decisions of conscience are being made for us by high-level policymakers and by judicial fiat. Is this what we actually want for our city, and our nation? If MS 51 can choose to host the basketball league and the farmers’ market and the theatre troupe and the voting stations, why can’t they choose to host the church as well? I haven’t yet heard a compelling answer to that question.
Nothing will stop the church from meeting, and growing, certainly not just ruling out one kind of venue for its public meetings. In fact, Jesus was pretty clear that nothing at all will stop the church. It has often thrived most in the most challenging conditions. Yet those of us who elect our representatives, pay our taxes, and support our local pickle stands need to decide how much longer we will allow decisions that used to be ours and our neighbors’ to be made for us.
Political engagement need not produce acrimony or conflict, certainly not from the side of those who undertake it in the spirit Clardy recommends. And I suspect that he’s right that the more local the engagement, the more community-spirited and loving it can be. If the New York Board of Education wants to avoid the appearance of endorsement and avoid supercharging the allegedly volatile mixture of religion and politics, it can devolve the decisionmaking down to the local school level. Some schools will welcome churches, others likely won’t, but the people making the decisions will be friends and neighbors. They’ll be discussing real relationships, not debating sweeping abstractions.
Joseph Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.