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Look | Queens Church Facing Eviction Grapples With Its Future

Banished from schools, churches weigh their future

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Bible tells of the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, before entering the Promised Land. On a recent Sunday, Pastor Jon Storck joked that he envied the Israelites’ mobile temple, called the Tabernacle.

"It's too bad we don’t have a transportable worship area," Storck told Grace Fellowship Church, during a sermon about the superiority of faith and grace over bricks, mortar and other worldly attachments.

Grace Fellowship has been gathering at PS-150, in Sunnyside, Queens, since 2006 -- but is scheduled to be evicted in two weeks by the city's Department of Education. The Presbyterian-affiliated church gets about 80 regulars and newcomers a week.

The city rents school space to hundreds of different organizations – including dozens of churches -- but since 1995, the Department of Education has been trying to evict religious groups, in the name of separation of church and state.

The DOE gave the churches until February 12 to vacate. Last week, the DOE provided a list of 53 churches with active permits to worship in schools, but it’s not clear how many are still in auditoriums like the one at PS-150. Some contacted by WNYC have already found new homes, and others are weighing different options for the future.

Court rulings have gone back and forth. Last June, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the city. The court said the city, in barring “worship services,” was excluding “a type of activity” but wasn’t being discriminatory. And it ruled the city was neither infringing on personal expression nor free speech under the First Amendment.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in December, effectively accepted that argument, when it declined to hear an appeal.

State Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) has sponsored a bill he says will override the distinction between religious clubs meeting in schools for education and edification, which is Constitutional, and religious congregations making schools their own personal worship space, which isn't.

The Education Committee passed his bill by a 17-1 margin earlier this week, and Golden expects it to go to the full Senate before the churches’ February 12 eviction deadline.

A spokeswoman for his counterpart in the Assembly, Nelson Castro (D-Bronx), said they are trying to get the bill on their committee agenda.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s office has submitted a letter to the legislature asking it defeat the bill, based on the federal court rulings.

The New York Civil Liberties Union says Golden is missing the point.

“You have a right to pray, of course. You have a right to worship. Freedom of religion is critical,” New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said. “But freedom for a church to take over a school and convert it to a house of worship is not what our Constitution stands for.”

Storck isn't sure what Grace Fellowship's next move is. He said he has leads on a couple rental spaces in Sunnyside and could also temporarily bring his flock to an affiliated church in nearby Astoria. He’s also considering applying for a permit to use PS-50 in ways that are Constitutionally permitted and don’t involve formal worship.

Grace Fellowship Church has been meeting at PS-150 in Sunnyside, Queens, since 2006 . The congregation is part of a network called the Redeemer Church Planting Center, which seeks to “plant” churches in non-traditional venues in different neighborhoods to attract the unaffiliated.

Pastor Jon Storck moved to Queens from Memphis, Tenn., two years ago to lead Presbyterian-affiliated Grace Fellowship. A recent court ruling means this and more than 50 other churches will no longer be able to meet for worship in public schools.

Richard Park and about 80 worshipers gather each Sunday in PS-150’s auditorium. Other than the setting, it is typical of many modern Protestant services, with an emphasis on singing and Bible study and a relatively informal rapport between minister and congregation.

Meeyoung Choi, a Korean-American who grew up in Argentina, translates much of the preaching from English to Spanish, for Grace Fellowship’s Latino worshippers, who wear radio-transmitted headsets. She sits behind a curtain the church puts up and takes down each week to make the auditorium seem smaller. The church has donated around $2,000 worth of audio equipment to the school.

Luis Barriga, a sculptor, uses a transmitter and text to follow the weekly Bible teaching. Today’s lesson: being a Christian entails hardship, sacrifice and conflict: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child. Children will rise against their parents and have them put to death,” Jesus tells his disciples in the Book of Mark, Chapter 13. “and you will be hated by all for my namesake, but the one endures to the end will be saved.”

Murals in the PS-150 auditorium depict scenes from the cultural and industrial arts. Pastor John Storck says public school gives the congregation a good position in the community – and other venues, even if nearby, spacious and affordable, wouldn’t be as effective. “We look at this as a place to minister,” Storck said of PS-150. “It’s a vital part of our mission.”

Rob and Kasey Powers have been coming to Grace Fellowship for two years, and now are joined by their 6-month-old son, Simon. Initially, Rob said, he felt like he was back in elementary school. “It was a little odd,” he said, “but this is New York City – you get used to stuff quickly.”

James Hall, a native of Omaha, Neb., was looking for a church that wasn’t too traditional and attracted many different kinds of people. He understands the argument for evicting Grace Fellowship for separation of church and state. “But churches are paying for the space, like any group would be paying for it, and it’s fine for schools to rent from churches,” Hall said. “It seems like it should work both ways.” The city maintains that rental fees don’t cover school usage, and that they’re effectively subsidized.

Ibrahim Sedrak and his daughter Scarlet socialize with the congregation after services in the school cafeteria. Sedrak, an immigrant from Egypt, also goes to a Coptic Christian church. Weekly “fellowship” often involves different ethnic groups’ culinary specialties – or freshly delivered pizza.

PS-150’s neighborhood, Sunnyside, Queens, is one of the city’s most diverse, with a large proportion of immigrants from Latin America, the Middle East and the Far East. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religious groups can meet in public schools for Bible study and prayer, but the High Court also recently let stand an Appeals Court ruling that draws a line at schools playing host to regular worship services.

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Comments [3]

John Frisbie

This idea that the churchgoers 'take over and dominate' the school on Sundays is false. While I support the NYCLU in most cases, I question their reasoning and motivation on this battle. As far as the argument goes within the law, New York is not establishing a religion by renting the space to churches. The space is available to all religious and non-religious groups. To make the argument that this violates the Constitution is a stretch as the rental process is open to all.

The churchgoers, just like all the others that use the school space over the weekend, come in, set up, do their business, clean up and leave. Even if the students were to know that the church meets there on Sundays, it would be no more confusing to them than going to school in church spaces Monday through Friday, which many of them do as the NY schools don't have space for all the students.

Feb. 02 2012 11:24 PM
Dennis Lew from Forest Hills

I am a member of Ascension Church in Forest Hills, another church that was planted by Redeemer and a sister church to Grace Fellowship Church. We meet at P.S.101 in Forest Hills each Sunday and have been there for 5 years now. I cordially invite this reporter or the director of the NYCLU to come and visit us on Sundays so that they can get their facts straight. This way, they can see first hand that our church does not "take over" or "dominate" the school facilities on Sundays as there are two other renters that rent space at the school at the same time we meet. We use the facilities for 3-4 hours on Sunday mornings, we pack up, and then we leave. I doubt most students or their families even know we use the school facilities on Sundays. A great example of Ascension not dominating P.S.101 on Sunday was last April during our annual Easterfest. We traditionally organize an Easter Egg hunt after service, which is open to the public and have been very popular with the community over the past 5 years. We've traditionally held it in the gymnasium but last April, one of the other renters, a youth basketball league, would not let us use the gym after service for our Easter egg hunt even though there were no scheduled games that afternoon. Thus, we were relegated to the 2nd floor cafeteria, which is a significantly smaller space. Now, it we were actually able to dominate or take over the school facilities, I don't think we would have allowed ourselves to sent upstairs, especially when the gym was not in use.

Additionally, what I find interesting is that so many people who have been on the other side of this debate frequently cite the concept of separation of church and state that is in our Constitution. However, I would like to make the argument that we are exercising our Constitutional right to exercise our freedom of religion. Also, I make an additional argument that by not allowing our church to rent space, just like any other group is allowed to, the city and Mayor Bloomberg is discriminating against our church and all the other affected religious groups.

Feb. 02 2012 10:46 PM
Andrew Lee from Bergen County, NJ

What a farce. Churches have been meeting in public schools in NYC for years with ZERO effect on the children that attend those schools. As a former NYC public school student, rest assured that NYC kids do not know nor CARE how the school building is used on Sundays. Kicking out churches, mosques and other religious Sunday tenants out on the street only diminishes available public meeting spaces in NYC. I guess NYC is only for corporations, banks and organizations with mega-millions who can afford to buy up buildings in the city. What a sad state of affairs.

Jan. 29 2012 07:19 PM

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