NY Church Fights to Hold Services at School

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BRONX, N.Y. -- A growing number of churches hold Sunday worship services inside public schools. But in New York City, that trend was banned many years ago.

Now, the New York City School District's policy has pushed one congregation into a long legal battle against the city.

The United States Supreme Court could soon decide to weigh in.

The Church Trend

It takes three hours and 20 volunteers to turn one public school in Chesapeake, Va., into a church each Sunday. The Sonlight congregation has been doing it for more than 10 years.

"It's a ton of work. But it is rewarding work," Hershel Adams, Sonlight's founder and pastor, told CBN News.

"As I keep trying to tell our people, don't focus on how much work it is, focus on the ... implications of what you are doing," he said.

Adams has watched his congregation grow from nine people meeting in one member's house to more than 300 meeting at the school.

"When people are coming into this church, when they are walking into these doors, many times their lives are hanging in the balance. And they are just hanging on a thread," he explained.

"What we do matters. All this set up that we do matters for the eternal destination of a lot of people," he said.

Meeting in a school building has given Sonlight room to expand with a children's church and a ministry to teens.

Meanwhile, adult members are given much-needed time to raise money to purchase land and make plans for a permanent home for the church.

Where would Sonlight be if it could not meet in a public school? That's question Pastor Adams doesn't like to contemplate.

But in New York, The Bronx Household of Faith is facing this reality.

Fight for Equal Access

The debate over churches using public schools has been making its way through the courts at least since the 1990s.

Now, Bronx Household of Faith congregants want the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if holding a church service in a public school implies an endorsement of a particular religion.

Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jordan Lorence represents the church, which has has been meeting at "Public School #15" since 2002.

"This is not government sponsorship of religion," Lorence told CBN News. "This is merely government accommodating one group, a religious group, among many community groups that meet."

"We are arguing that based on important precedence that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled five times at least since 1981 that religious groups, private religious groups seeking access to meet in a building, have to be treated the same as the non-religious private groups," he explained.

"All we are asking for is equal access," he said.

New York School Policy

The New York City School District allows community organizations to use its school buildings for a fee that covers part of what it takes to staff the school for a scheduled event.

However, the district has a policy against worship services that it has been fighting to uphold.

"The department is quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice," an attorney for the district said in a written response to The Bronx Household of Faith's Supreme Court petition.

Lorence calls the district's policy unconstitutional.

"The Supreme Court has said you can't exclude the religious groups simply because they are talking about religion and New York City is doing that very thing," he said.

"Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, Houston, on and on and on. They all allow this," Lorence added.

"As a matter of fact a lot of people listening to this might think it is pretty routine for churches to rent schools on the weekends and that is typical," he said.

More than a decade of legal wrangling has allowed The Bronx Household of Faith to continue meeting at the public school.

The church is now one of about 60 congregations holding worship services in a New York City Public School.

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Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.