‘Instant churches’ convert public schools to worship spaces
By Cathy Lynn Grossman and Natalie DiBlasio, USA TODAY
Praise the Lord and pass the crates with the pre-fab pulpit and the portable baptistery inside. The Forest Hills Community
Church is moving into P.S. 144 — sort of.
Congregants pray and sing during a service at the Forest Hills Community Church inside P.S. 144 in Queens, N.Y., where a permit is bought to use the public school for worship.
Every Sunday morning, the elementary school in Queens, like dozens more schools in New York City and thousands more nationwide, is transformed into a house of worship for a few hours.
There’s no tally of how many churches, synagogues and mosques convert public school spaces into prayer places for the nominal cost of permits and promises to make no permanent changes in the school setting. What’s clear is that there has been a steady rise in numbers as congregations find schools are available, affordable and accessible to families they want to reach.
Critics, including some courts, are concerned that these arrangements are an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state. They say these bargain permits effectively subsidize religious congregations who would have to pay steeply higher prices on the open market. They also note that the practice appears to favor Christian groups, which worship on Sundays — when school spaces are most often available.
Caught in the middle: churches such as Forest Hills, which spent $3,000 for a permit to use P.S. 144 from February through June and just renewed for July and August. For September and beyond, however, nothing is certain.
The city’s Department of Education, which has been trying for a decade to oust the congregations and end the weekend worship practice, won the latest legal round in June. As the case winds its way through more appeals, an injunction allows about 60 congregations to remain in place and the permit process to continue.
So Forest Hills’ evangelical founder and pastor, Jeremy Sweeten, still rises early each Sunday, hitches up a 20-foot trailer packed by PortableChurch.com with every bit of paraphernalia needed to create a sanctuary and children’s Bible classes, tows it to the school.
Arriving at P.S. 144, the trailer is swarmed by volunteers such as Bible college student Bill Dupree, who hoists the trusses for the sound stage in the cafeteria, and Nicki Stepp, who organizes a little classroom between colorful plastic snap-together partitions in the gym.
By 10 a.m., the Assemblies of God congregation of about 60 adults is raising their voices in song and prayer.
Then about 1 p.m., as swiftly as they came, they’re gone. Every offering basket stashed. Every Bible coloring book boxed. Every sign that a church meets here whisked away, so P.S. 144 looks like its Monday-morning self once more.
The push into schools
It’s a familiar scene in many communities across the nation:
•A USA TODAY look at the five largest and five fastest-growing school districts in the continental USA found that all 10 had granted permits for religious congregations to hold weekend worship.
New York City, the largest, is typical: Christian churches are the primary clients because Muslims and Jews worship on Fridays and Saturdays, when school spaces usually are being used for student activities.
•Acts 29 Network, an inter-denominational, Seattle-based evangelical coalition that has started 350 churches across the nation in the past five years, estimates about 16% of these meet in school spaces.
“We don’t have a hidden agenda. Our heart is to serve the community just like schools serve the community. … They’re designed for large groups, and they’ve got parking,” says Scott Thomas, Acts 29 president.
•A 2007 national survey of newly established Protestant churches found that 12% met in schools, according to LifeWay, a Nashville-based Christian research agency.
LifeWay Director Ed Stetzer says the major draw is that start-up congregations and expanding multisite churches can offer worship close to families’ homes for a fraction of the cost of creating their own building.
However, Stetzer, who also leads church-planting efforts, says he sees the constitutional dangers. When asked to address this with school districts, Stetzer says he cautions they will have no control over the religious preaching and teaching.
“So if a Wiccan coven (wanted a use permit), you would have to be as neutral as you would with an evangelical church. Even Westboro (the Topeka, Kan., congregation that pickets funerals with signs denouncing gays) could move in and you would have no way to stop them,” Stetzer says.
Bronx church loses in court
Potential hate speech in the gym isn’t the primary concern in the New York City case.
The city school board’s legal briefs argue the practice “improperly advances religion” by, in effect, subsidizing the churches with facilities below market rate and shows “favoritism” to Christian churches as religions that don’t worship on Sundays are generally shut out.
The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In his June ruling, Judge Pierre Leval wrote that the Bronx House of Faith, ensconced since 2002 in P.S. 15, “has made the school the place for the performance of its rites, and might well appear to have established itself there. The place has, at least for a time, become the church.”
The Bronx church is seeking a rehearing. Jordan Lorence, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which represents the church, expects the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn the ruling. Lorence said in a news release, “Religious groups, including churches, shouldn’t be discriminated against simply because they want to rent a public building just like other groups can.”
Meanwhile, groups such as Sweeten’s carry on, knowing that their permit might be revoked if, or when, the injunction is lifted.
Permits cover security, utilities, janitor service and insurance costs for the public facilities and generally forbid any permanent signs that worship was here. No nailing a cross to the gym wall, adding the church name to the school sign out front or altering bulletin boards.
So congregations such as Sweeten’s buy the goods — pulpit to prayer books, tot tables to video screens — from retailers such as Portable Church or its budget subsidiary, Church in a Box, or competitor, Church on Wheels. The companies sell packages ranging from the bare necessities for $15,000 pre-packed in a trailer, to $200,000 for everything right up to the coffee urns for the social hour.
Kendra Malloy, marketing director for Portable Church and Church in a Box, says the New York court ruling may have been a “warning shot” but she doesn’t expect it will ice the trend.
The company estimates there are about 24,000 trailer-stored churches in the USA and Canada. Of the,1,700 pre-packed trailers her company has sold since 1994, Malloy estimates 75% to 80% of those are in public, private or charter school spaces.
“When churches are portable, they have to create the culture of ownership. You need everyone to buy into what’s happening on Sunday morning or Saturday night worship service. Get people excited and get people to help. This frees you to focus on body of Christ and service.”
And that’s the whole point, Sweeten says. If he one day has to tow away from P.S. 144 forever, it still will be fine. “We’ll still be here, somewhere. The scriptures tell us a church is never a building. You don’t go to church. You are the church.”
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