By Stan Friedman
NEW YORK CITY, NY (February 14, 2012) – Two congregations connected with the Evangelical Covenant Church are among roughly 60 local congregations that have been evicted from public school buildings in which they previously met. A third Covenant congregation had planned to use school space, but will now have to find another location.
Under a city order, Sunday was the last day that congregations could meet in the schools. The city has argued that allowing use of public school space for worship services violates the separation of church and state.
Queenswest, which is pastored by James Kim, has negotiated a lease with The Secret Theatre, which is close to the school where they had been meeting. “They are pleased with the space, and the costs will even be lower for them,” says Howard Burgoyne, superintendent of the East Coast Conference.
Hope Church is an upcoming church plant scheduled to begin weekly meetings in September and was able to lease space at Legal Outreach, a nearby nonprofit organization, says Pastor Drew Hyun. The launch team will meet in homes until they are able to move into the new space March 25.
New Vision Community Church is a non-denominational church being adopted into the Covenant at this year’s Annual Meeting and is pastored by Martin Chang. The church has not yet announced a new location. “As a congregation of 150 to 200, their needs are more extensive,” says Burgoyne.
Churches frequently meet in schools because the cost of renting or owning space in New York is so steep. The schools have provided affordable space. Rent from the churches as well as other contributions from the congregations have benefitted the schools, advocates point out.
“Renting schools is such a win for both churches and schools,” says Hyun.
The New York Senate passed a bill that would allow churches to meet in schools, but it has languished in a House committee and no action is foreseen in the near future. The bill was the result of small protests that grew exponentially in recent weeks due to social media and press coverage. More than a thousand people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge two weeks ago to express their solidarity with the churches being evicted.
The core of the movement has included two Covenant pastors, Michael Carrion of Promised Land Covenant Church in Bronx, and Jose Humphries of Metro Hope Covenant Church in Harlem, among others. Efrain Alicea, pastor of Elements Covenant Church, a new congregation, also has participated in protests. Burgoyne has praised the commitment of the pastors.
Supporters of the churches say most of the churches meeting in schools are located in poor neighborhoods, which benefit from church outreaches. “For now it seems that the poor and marginalized of New York City will be the ones to suffer the loss of services provided by these congregations,” says Carrion. “For this I grieve most of all.”
Carrion says he expects church supporters will try to continue the fight in the legislature. They also will seek another court injunction.
Eviction notices were distributed last December after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a federal appeals court 2-1 ruling that sided with the city in a 16-year legal contest against New York’s policy. The court agreed that the meetings violated the “Establishment Clause” and wrote, “A worship service is an act of organized religion that consecrates the place in which it is performed, making it a church.”
Burgoyne disagrees. “The appellate judges’ reasoning focused on a theological interpretation that acts of worship inherently constitute an irrevocable consecration of spaces. None of the churches being evicted claim to hold to this theology.”
The superintendent criticizes the city for its double-mindedness. “Ironically, the New York City Board of Education rents classroom spaces from the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York – which is completely at odds with their stated conviction that dual use of classroom space is somehow ‘harmful to children.’ ”
So far, the controversy has had at least one upside. “More and more New Yorkers have begun attending some of these churches,” Burgoyne says. “Within our disagreement with the Bloomberg administration, we are grateful that this has become an occasion for the gospel to be heard and the love of Christ to be made manifest.”