NEW YORK—The New York City Council overwhelmingly passed a resolution Wednesday calling on the state legislature to allow houses of worship to rent from public schools. The final vote tally was 38-11, with Council Speaker Christine Quinn—the top candidate for New York City mayor, who will control education policy if elected—voting against it.
“We had a huge, huge victory today,” said Pastor Bill Devlin, who with Council Member Fernando Cabrera (D-Bronx) has headed up a group of pastors pushing for churches’ equal access to public buildings. “Here you have the most progressively leaning Democratic city council in the entire U.S. And they vote by a huge margin in favor of the freedom to worship. … The Lord did this.”
The New York City Board of Education’s policy forbids houses of worship from renting public schools, but allows any other nonprofit to rent the space. That policy has faced challenges in court for almost two decades. Most recently, a federal judge placed an injunction on the policy, so houses of worship can rent from public schools, for now. The city has appealed the decision to the 2nd U.S Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in November of last year and could issue a decision any day now. At least 40 churches in the city rent spaces from public schools.
The council resolution now heads to New York's legislature in Albany. Last year the state Senate approved legislation allowing churches to rent from public schools, but the bill died in the state Assembly after Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver refused to bring it to a vote.
“The resolution is more than symbolic,” wrote lawyer Jordan Lorence in an email. Lorence is handling the case against the city’s policy in court for Alliance Defending Freedom. “The passage of a resolution urging enactment of specific legislation is the formal way the NYC Council makes its will known to state lawmakers.”
The city’s Board of Education has said that “impressionable” children might be confused if they saw a religious service happening at their school. Council members who spoke up against the resolution Wednesday said it violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“We’re not subsidizing religion,” said Council Member Lewis Fidler, in response. “They’re paying us. I think this is a matter of fairness and equal treatment of religious groups.”
Quinn only brought the resolution to the floor because of the overwhelming support for it, Devlin said. Cabrera had considered bringing a discharge petition on the matter, a tool where a majority of the council can overrule the speaker.
Devlin has already planned to take a bus of 50 pastors up to the state legislature to push for the legislation.
“Albany is the next stop on the right to worship train,” he said.