Fred Mogul, Reporter, WNYC News
Fred Mogul has been covering healthcare and medicine for WNYC since 2002.
While the city tries to exorcise the influence of religion from the public school system by evicting churches that rent school space for worship services, it’s sending thousands of children to spaces rented from parochial institutions, where students often walk past crosses and other religious images to get to their secular classrooms.
Landlords -- including Thessalonia Baptist Church in the Bronx, Mission of the Immaculate Virgin on Staten Island and Yeshiva of Central Queens -- rent to some 50 public schools to relieve overcrowding.
Many facilities no longer serve a religious function; Catholic schools, especially, have been closing at a rapid rate in recent years. But others still actively serve the communities they were built for.
“I'm Catholic, so maybe I'm just used to it,” Teresa Lamb said, looking at a large cross overlooking the pickup area behind the Public School 150 annex in Sunnyside, Queens, which houses the school’s kindergarten and pre-K in the former Queen of Angels Catholic School. The school, including its annex, is about 10 percent over capacity, based on numbers from the School Construction Authority.
Inside, the annex looks like almost any other public school, with no trace of its religious roots. But outside, there are several vestiges, including that large cross, and smaller ones that look like plus signs, embedded into the exterior walls every few feet.
“I could see how people would have an issue, especially in this area where there are people from so many different cultures,” said Ms. Lamb, who has two children at the P.S. 150 annex. “I would probably have an issue if there were Hebrew signs in my school.”
The city is desperate for school space, particularly in parts of Queens where existing schools are far above capacity. Each year it spends hundreds of millions of dollars building schools, and about $125 million renting space from private property owners for classrooms.
Of that, about a fifth goes for leases in some 50 current and former parochial schools and other religious institutions, officials said. Most are Catholic, and a few are Protestant, Greek Orthodox or Jewish.
"We are leasing the sites to alleviate school overcrowding in some neighborhoods," said an Education Department spokeswoman, Marge Feinberg.
At the same time, the city has been trying to evict religious groups, many of them start-up churches, that rent public school space for Sunday worship services. The city says it wants to avoid blurring the line between church and state, giving the impression it favors one religion over others, and potentially confusing young students about whether their school is public or parochial. Federal courts have generally backed the city.
“It is reasonable for the [city] to fear that allowing schools to be converted into churches, at public expense...might ‘foster an excessive government entanglement with religion’ that advances religion,” a federal appeals court judge wrote last year, citing the United States Supreme Court and supporting the city’s right to evict.
Legal challenges, however, have kept some religious congregations still renting space and worshiping in several dozen public schools, down from more than 150 two years ago.
Jordan Lorence, a lawyer who represents the churches, has argued that accommodating religious expression is very different from endorsing it. He said if the city was concerned about confusing students because their schools host worship services on Sundays -- which the city has argued in court -- then it should really worry about children who go to unmistakably Christian and Jewish buildings every school day.
“Under their own criteria, those seem to be much more serious than what’s happening on the weekends,” said Mr. Lorence, a lawyer at the Alliance Defense Fund. “The school district is in the weird and strange and contradictory situation of: schools meeting in former church schools, O.K.; churches meeting in schools, not O.K. And I just don’t see a whole lot of difference there.”
The city says the difference is a question of inside versus outside. Ms. Feinberg said public schools cover or remove iconography and images in all space used by students “to the extent feasible, whenever students are present.”
“If what goes on inside a parochial school room is a traditional secular education, taught by a secular teacher, to a secular group of students, for those students, that room is, for all practical purposes, a secular school room,” she added.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said it was concerned about the “environment” at some of the annexes, even if the classrooms were identical to those in regular Education Department buildings.
The civil liberties union president, Donna Lieberman, said that students shouldn’t have to gather in classrooms with crosses or other religious symbols on the wall, but that it's about more than that.
“Kids should not be sent to a school that looks and feels like church,” Ms. Lieberman said. “You can’t just slap ‘P.S. XDX’ in front of a church and have kids understand that they’re going to a public school that has no affiliation with the church whose cross is apparent to everybody who passes by. Kids have the right, and we as a society have an obligation, to provide an education free from religious promotion of any source, even just symbols.”
The civil liberties union, an ally with the city in its legal push to evict churches from schools, says it has received only two complaints or so over the years from parents about public schools operating in parochial spaces, neither of them interested in pursuing legal action.
WNYC visited several schools in Queens, and all had evidence of a religious connection on the outside of the buildings.
St. Teresa School has been closed since 2005, but its old sign, below a large cross, dominates the entrance to the P.S. 199 annex, which is indicated only by a small plastic sign on the lower part of the door. At the base of a nearby flagpole is a life-size sculpture of Jesus, communing with two young children.
P.S. 199, according to School Construction Authority data, is almost 25 percent over capacity, meaning last year there were 952 students enrolled at a school meant for a population of 763 students.
P.S. 280 has its name emblazoned on industrial metal covering the old sign for the Blessed Sacrament School, which closed in 2009. But the Jackson Heights school is attached to a large church, with a prominent sculpture of the Virgin Mary in front.
Renting out the spaces helps often financially strapped religious institutions, and gives public schools an outlet for their growing student population that’s much more cost effective than acquiring property and building a new facility.
Carmen Parache, principal of P.S. 150, said converting the Queen of Angels School into the P.S. 150 annex was mostly a matter of some fresh interior paint, and removing the massive cross above the front roof line. No one has complained, she said, about the other symbols remaining outside.
“The classrooms here are just as nice as the classrooms in our main building -- really open, airy -- and we’re really glad to have it,” Ms. Parache said. “There’s no room in this area to build a new one. The church has this empty space. Why not use it?”
Previously, the P.S. 150 annex for pre-K and kindergarten was in a senior center on busy Queens Boulevard, above a billiard hall. The classrooms were small and noisy, according to the long-time drama teacher, Joe Pagano.
“It was an atrocity, a fire trap,” Mr. Pagano said. “People outside often were leaving the pool hall from the night before and would be there in the morning. It was not suitable for an education for children.”
He’s very enthusiastic about the four-year-old annex at the old Queen of Angels school.
“It’s a godsend,” he said.