THE BRONX — More than two dozen church leaders and supporters were arrested Thursday in The Bronx as they protested a ban on religious organizations using schools for worship services.
While Mayor Michael Bloomberg delivered his State of the City address inside Morris High School in the Bronx, outside more than 200 people protested the restriction that the city argues keeps a clear boundary between church and state. The ban, which will go into effect on Feb. 12, has left dozens of churches around the city scrambling for a location to hold Sunday services.
“Is this going to be part of Michael Bloomberg’s legacy, he drove out churches?” asked Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian organization that provides legal counsel to preserve religious liberties.
“Why Is New York City the only large school district in the nation to have a policy against worship services in schools?”
The ADF has been involved in a 16-year-battle to ensure churches could hold worship services in city schools. That battle surrounded a specific church, the Bronx Household of Faith and the New York City Department of Education repeatedly denied its request to use a school building for Sunday services. A federal district court issued an injunction in 2002, according to the ADF, prohibiting the DOE from rejecting any religious organization from holding worship services in its schools.
The injunction was thrown out on June 2, 2011. ADF filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined on Dec. 5 to review the case, leaving the Bronx Household of Faith and other churches that met in schools with an eviction date of Feb. 12.
Senior counsel of the New York City Law Department, Jane Gordon, said after the Dec. 5 decision the DOE was concerned that a school could become “identified with a particular religious belief or practice.”
"We view this as a victory for the city's children and their families," she said in a statement.
At the midday protest in between prayers and worship songs, small groups of protesters, including church leaders, blocked traffic as police arrested them peacefully. About 30 were arrested and charges were pending, police said.
Sal Sabino, the 55-year-old pastor at the Heavenly Vision Christian Center in Inwood, who attended the protest, is still searching for a Sunday venue for church services.
“The church could be disintegrated or we could move to the Bronx,” said Sabino, noting that a geographic change was dire for any congregation.
“That means a great deal, you ask any pastor,” he said.
A cramped city with sky-high rents meant finding a venue for 500 people at a reasonable price was difficult. Heavenly Vision is currently paying about $2,000 a month for its spot in I.S. 52, but this could jump to anything from $10,000 to $20,000, according to Sabino.
And where would the money come from?
Sabino pulled 28-year-old Alexis Arias out of the crowd of protesters.
“This has been the best thing I have ever done,” testified Arias about joining the church 18 months ago after leaving behind a gang life of drugs and crime.
“This is my family,” said Arias, who was brought to the church by his sister.
Sabino argued high cost of rent could affect the community work of the church, which Arias was an example of.
However, the ban has not be all bad. Many churchgoers have noticed a strong unity develop all over the city between churches. Gregory Webb, a 23-year-old Catholic came to the protest in solidarity for those who are affected.
“Catholic Churches have a tradition of buildings,” he said. “A lot of newer Protestant churches don’t have that tradition.”
For Webb, an attack on one church was an attack on the entire community.
“Think that once you attack one church what’s keeping them from attacking others.”