It is the 11th hour for churches in New York City who use public schools on Sunday. Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg and his sock puppets in the Department of Education, this is the last day congregations will be able to hold service in public school buildings. It is tough to find any in-depth reporting on this issue, religion not necessarily being a hot-button topic in the big city.
From the scraps of information that are out there, it seems the DOE based its decision on the separation between church and state. Being an agnostic, it is an issue that would normally elicit little reaction from me. Being a history teacher, I know the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from encouraging particular religious sects over others. However, something tells me there is more than meets the eye in the DOE’s ruling.
The first clue comes from city Councilman Fernando Cabrera who states “Minorities make up the congregations of many of the churches being evicted…They’re staples in our community and they provide a volunteer base that the city can never pay for.” Many of these churches are small congregations located in the Bronx and Washington Heights, places where the local church may be the only force for community organization. They rent spaces in schools because they are relatively cheap in a city where even the smallest space can be prohibitively expensive. In many cases, the DOE’s eviction notice is tantamount to the destruction of these congregations.
If churches are paying for these spaces, does this mean the government is encouraging the establishment of particular religious sects? If these spaces are being used on Sunday mornings, when staff and students are not in attendance, is there a danger of proselytizing or indoctrination on government property? In other words, does the use of school buildings by these religious groups really violate the non-establishment clause of the First Amendment? It seems an argument can be made that it does not.
On the other hand, if these were fundamentalist sects somewhere in the Sunbelt who were facing eviction, I would probably not bat an eyelash. Yet, those sects seem to have enough funds to rent out stadiums, organize Jesus camps and buy television time. In fact, they have been buying airtime ever since the days the airwaves were still owned by the government. How was that not a violation of non-establishment? It was the Evangelical groups of the Sunbelt that led the religious revival that peaked in the 1990s, giving birth to the era of the “culture wars” that culminated in the impeachment of President Clinton.
So perhaps the DOE is trying to unblur the lines separating church and state. The culture wars are behind us, the Conservative Revolution is in retreat and Bloomberg is doing his part to roll back the religious awakening that took place with the help of the state over the past 20 or so years. It is a politically safe thing for him to do in such a secular city as New York. He will not have to worry about thousands of angry Christians camped out in front of Gracie Mansion.
Despite all of these possible recommendations in favor of eviction, I am still not buying it. If Bloomberg has proven consistent in one area, it is in his willingness to destroy inner city communities. His DOE is poised to close down another 23 inner city schools, no doubt with the intention of replacing them with his beloved small school model featuring no enrichment activities and inexperienced teachers. He has allowed his friends like Eva Moskowitz to set up shop in public school buildings, taking millions of taxpayer dollars away from public schools in order to help pay for her nearly $400,000 yearly salary and glossy fliers advertising her Success Academies. In short, he has done everything in his power to rip the heart out of any vehicle of community-building people in the inner city might have.
And this, I believe, is the real reason for Bloomberg’s and DOE’s newfound constitutional scruples. Evicting these religious groups is a safe and effective way to continue his war on poor communities. It is part of the crescendo of a mayoral administration that has seen gentrification and displacement as suitable policies for poor neighborhoods. The tiny enclaves of community that exist for the urban poor, like schools and churches, have been ravaged by an out of touch mayor that has made screwing poor people the one consistent part of his legacy.
After all, if the mayor had any constitutional scruples at all, the New York City Police Department would have never had a “stop and frisk” policy in the first place.