NYC Churches Fight Back for Religious Freedom

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NEW YORK CITY - Sounds of praise rise from Walton High School in the Bronx each Sunday. For now, it's the meeting place for the Heavenly Vision Christian Center, the city's largest Latino congregation.

But this is a critical week for New York City congregations like Heavenly Vision, who hold services in public schools. The city council and the New York state legislature could vote to reverse a decision banning worship services in those buildings.

If nothing is done, the city's education department will evict more than 60 congregations because of its policy banning worship services in public schools.

Some of those schools are in Councilman Fernando Cabrera's district, who spoke to CBN News just one day before joining thousands in an historic protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Heavenly Vision and Walton High are in his district.

"These houses of worship have contributed so much into the public schools," Cabrera said. "They have provided free air conditioning, painted the schools, after-school programs, adult literacy programs. The list goes on and on. Free programs at a time when the city is cutting."

"We are the only school district, the only large school district in the United States that has this policy, the only state," Cabrera said. "This is why we are holding the line."

Holding the Line

Holding the line includes protests like the one held this past Sunday. Pastor Dimas Salaberrios helped lead that protest march across the bridge, after risking his life for the cause.

Salaberrios began a hunger strike January 1, 2012. He planned to maintain the strike until the policy was reversed. But doctors ordered him to end it after 22 days because of an accelerated heart rate.

Police have also arrested Salaberrios twice in previous public demonstrations outside city buildings.

"In New York City, we feel like the levees are breaking. And we are using our hands to plug up all the holes that we can," Salaberrios told CBN News. "And we are scared that if this thing fully comes out, what's it going to take for our country to stop it."

Salaberrios pastors Infinity Church, a growing congregation in the middle of the Bronx River Housing Projects, the birthplace of hip-hop music and one of the poorest areas of the country.

Members meet inside a city recreation center for worship services. They also faced eviction until administrators at the City Housing Department recognized they did not have to follow the New York Department of Education's lead.

Salaberrios is now determined to fight until other congregations are free to meet in public schools.

"When I was reached by the gospel, and I was in New York City, it was a church in a school," he told CBN News. "And my past was being a rebellious, young crack dealer in the streets who escaped from the custody of the cops and was on the run for over five or six years."

"I'm living proof of how effective churches are when they are in schools," he said. "If it was in a big cathedral building, I may not have been attracted to go."

Battle for Public Access

Churches have been fighting for the past 16 years to have the same access to public schools in New York City as other organizations. This pending eviction comes after the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case of the Bronx Household of Faith.

But the Supreme Court did hear a similar case in 1993 from Lamb's Chapel Church. In that case, the Center Moriches School District had refused to allow the church to rent the high school and show a Christian film.

Jay Sekulow, with the American Center for Law and Justice, argued then that religious speech is protected speech. Sekulow said he sees no difference in the access New York City churches are seeking for worship.

"It's exactly on point, so we had to take it to the Supreme Court of the United States to win and we won unanimously, so I think it is completely inconsistent," Sekulow said.

"Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not take the Bronx Household of Faith case. So that leaves a very difficult situation in New York, which is going to take a legislative remedy," he said.

Councilman Cabrera is at work on that remedy with measures before the council, the state House, and Senate.

"We expect it to pass," Cabrera said. "We have such overwhelming support at the state level and the city level. The only one who is not getting it is the mayor."

CBN News reached out to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's office and the city's Department of Education for their side of the story.

The city's law department issued this statement: "The department is quite properly concerned about having any school in this diverse city identified with one particular religious belief or practice."

Height of Hypocrisy?

That statement is a bit troubling to some because the New York City's Department of Education routinely rents space from local churches and other religious organizations.

One such is example is in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, Public School #133 is housed inside a building the city rents from the Catholic Church. The building looks like a church and has at least two crosses at the top.

"It just seems to be a double standard," Councilman Cabrera responded. "It's hypocrisy."

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Efrem Graham

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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.