Religion and Real Estate in New York City

By Fred Folmer

Should religious groups be allowed to worship in New York City public schools? This question is at the heart of an ongoing issue involving church leaders, congregants and public officials, who are challenging a decision by the Bloomberg administration and Department of Education to evict churches that use school buildings for their worship services. Although the churches have now been evicted from their spaces, questions about the wisdom and fairness of doing so certainly remain, and legislation to overturn the evictions is still pending.

The issue may on the surface appear to be a standard church-and-state dispute, and indeed some of the questions it raises–Should so-called religious groups be allowed to worship on public facilities as paying tenants? Does such a use violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause? What constitutes a “worship service,” anyway, and why does it entail special forms of legislative restriction?–are quite familiar to anyone who has followed such cases. But the issue also suggests something that receives far less attention from media, and is much harder to map easily onto boilerplate rhetoric about “separation of church and state”  This is so because it affects certain kinds of churches and populations, but also because the decision to evict the churches—whatever its stated intentions—could have a marked effect on the kind of religion that gets practiced in New York City.  And where it’s practiced, given that it drastically reduces the space available to nondenominational and evangelical congregations in a city in which real estate is famously hard to come by. Continue Reading →