By Bob Allen
Editor’s note: This story was edited after publication to correct misinformation in tne next-to-final paragraph and to add a comment from the NYC Law Department.
A New York City councilman was among seven people arrested Jan. 5 at a protest against a plan to evict churches that currently rent space for worship in the city’s public schools.
Council member Fernando Cabrera was one of seven protestors charged with trespassing after refusing to move from the city’s law department in Manhattan. Early reports were sketchy, but at least three of those arrested were identified as pastors. Cabrera is also a pastor who started a church in the Bronx before his election to the council in 2009.
“Today we are seeing the first indication that the churches in New York City, and nationally, are awakening,” Cabrera said in a press release. “Together, we will fight these restrictive laws that discriminate against hundreds of thousands of church-goers.”
In December the U.S. Supreme Court upheld New York City’s right to bar the use of public school buildings for worship when school is not in session by refusing to hear an appeal by the Bronx Household of Faith. The city gave about 60 churches that rent schools for worship services until Feb. 12 to vacate. Baptist Press reported that seven of the affected churches are Southern Baptist.
The protest was prompted by reports that New York City Housing Authority officials notified several religious groups, mostly churches, over the Christmas holidays they could no longer rent community rooms and other facilities.
Jane Gordon, senior counsel for the New York City Law Department said the housing authority has been reviewing policies regarding all users of its facilities — not just religious groups — for more than a year and its policies have nothing to do with the education department policies.
New York City isn’t the first municipality in the nation to ban religious organizations from meeting in public spaces, but some observers fear that other communities will follow the example as a safeguard against excessive entanglement of church and state.
Religious-freedom groups including the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty said the Supreme Court’s rejection of the appeal went against other rulings by the high court that churches are entitled to the same right to rent public facilities as any other group.