When New York City announced last spring it intended to evict religious groups from public school facilities they rented for weekend services, churches fought back with a very public campaign. In June they won a court injunction against the city allowing the churches to stay, for now.
Meeting space is nearly as tight in Toronto as New York, but the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) in late August informed churches renting public school space that, beginning Sept. 1, faith-based organizations no longer qualified for reduced rates available to other charitable non-religious organizations, such as the Girl Guides. With only a couple of days' notice these churches saw their rent doubled, quadrupled, or worse, with another 44 percent hike for all renters scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2013.
The rent increases could drive out many of the hundreds of churches now meeting in Toronto public schools. And Canadian churches lack the experience, inclination, and legal advocacy groups that the New York churches had to duke it out in the public square over what strikes many as religious discrimination.
"There's a general outcry, but the churches are pretty scattered," said Dan MacDonald, pastor of Grace Toronto Church, which meets at the Rosedale Heights School for the Arts. "I don't think churches know what to do."
School board spokesmen have said the decision was made in February to help close a $110 million (Canadian) budget gap. Opening schools for permit holders, including athletic clubs and other community organizations, cost $11 million more than it generated. The changes should cut that shortfall by $2.2 million.
"Although religious organizations are mostly 'registered non-profit' bodies, the Board has determined that the cost of running religious services will no longer be subsidized," according to the TDSB website.
TDSB representatives did not return phone calls from WORLD but the board claims that fee changes are "not about making money from our community partners; we are taking steps to recover the actual costs involved."
MacDonald is skeptical. In some cases the TDSB already was making money renting to churches, he said, not losing it. Grace Toronto's former rate for several classrooms, the auditorium, and the cafeteria in the downtown school was $1,550 per week for four hours. Wages for district janitors and other support staff is $715 per week, a difference of more than $800 (less the cost of power and heating). On Aug. 30 MacDonald received two days' notice that the rent would be roughly doubled on Sept. 1 and hiked again in January. The new annual fee: about $190,000.
"The way they've treated us is unconscionable," MacDonald said.
Yet Canadian media have so far largely ignored the story and most churches are uncomfortable drawing attention to themselves. Canadian congregations traditionally shy away from politics as too worldly, MacDonald said. Besides, he added, people feel that it's "unchristian to cause a stink, unless there's a really good reason."
"But more important than just the cost issue, it seems to me, is the blatant discrimination against religious groups in general, and Christian churches in particular," said Julian Freeman, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church of East Toronto, a church plant of 70 that meets at Greenland Public School in the North York district in the city.
In Freeman's neighborhood, a school provides free space for Muslim prayers on Friday afternoons. That's a case of "religious accommodation" for students as opposed to a permit for an outside group, he agreed, but "on the surface it looks profoundly unfair."
Grace Fellowship's monthly rate went from $990 to just over $4,000.
"The changes to the permitting policy specifically target 'faith-based groups' alone," Freeman said. "The TDSB must be called to account for this."
That won't be easy, and nor will finding new meeting places in a city of 2.6 million, where rents are already high. But Grace Fellowship has been studying Genesis.
"We've seen how the Lord consistently provides for His people," Freeman said. "It's neat to see how, when the hard times come, God has been preparing us for them."