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On The Square

How Churches in Public Schools Benefit Our Cities
Q&A with Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera

With the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court not to hear the case of Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, the for-now final outcome of this 20-year-old case—centered on the public’s right to meet for worship in rented public school facilities—is now in the hands of the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. While he has assured Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys and their allies (including many New York civic and religious leaders) that, under his administration, churches like Bronx Household will be allowed to hold worship services in public buildings, the only permanent hope for that freedom now lies with the state legislature.

Among the most outspoken civic leaders in support of Bronx Household is Dr. Fernando Cabrera, pastor of New Life Outreach International in the Bronx. Cabrera, a former professor of counseling at Mercy College, is now in his fifth year on the New York City Council, representing the 14th District, which includes the West Bronx. In that capacity, he has chaired the council’s committee on Juvenile Justice, and co-chaired both the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus and the Gun Violence Task Force. He is actively pressing state legislators to pass a measure ensuring the right of New York churches to hold worship services in city facilities.

What is New York City losing by not allowing churches to hold worship services in public schools?

A lot of people don’t understand how important it is to have these churches be able to function out of public schools. One, they’re providing revenue that is needed in the city. Two, they’re providing free services … Celebrate Recovery groups, working with young people, after-school programs, educational programs, senior programs. We’re talking about millions upon millions of dollars’ worth of tangible outreach events and activities that they are providing to the community. The city right now cannot fill that gap.

"The right to worship movement has brought churches to work together like I’ve never seen before in New York City."

We have seen countless [monies] that were supposed to go to after-school programs totally being eliminated, and who stepped in? It was the houses of worship, specifically those who are renting right now from public schools.

Why are these churches able to make such a significant impact?

Because they’re there. They coordinate with the principals, they know firsthand what the needs are —not only in the school, but in the community. So whether it’s immigration services, adult literacy programs, whatever it is, the churches have come in and filled the gap.

Are church groups being singled out for discrimination in a different way than other groups?

Over 10,000 applications [to use public schools] go in every year for nonprofit organizations. The only group that has been targeted, the only group that has been marked to be eradicated from public schools has been these churches [because of their worship services]. And we’re talking about churches and synagogues that are giving frontline help. There’s an obvious level of unfairness that is taking place here. Behind this policy, there is an agenda. And I think that the church in America needs to wake up.

What are the implications of such discrimination, for communities beyond New York City?

Whatever happens in New York City, for whatever reason, usually is replicated and copied all around the world, and particularly in the U.S. Policies often determine behavior, and the message and the behavior of the city says, “Religious people cannot have the same kind of freedoms that other people have in terms of being able to use public space, namely public schools [for worship services].”

Are you confident of Mayor de Blasio’s support for the churches’ position?

We’ve been in talks with the mayor’s staff, and they’ve been assuring me that the city is going to continue letting churches rent from public schools. We commend him—he’s kept his word. I’m delighted by that … but at the same time fearful, because—in the future—we don’t know who the mayor’s going to be. That places churches in a predicament. This becomes a political issue … the very thing the Constitution was trying to avoid, putting churches at the mercy of the state. Every election puts this [equal access] up for grabs, unless it becomes a state law.

Do you still believe there’s a “strong possibility” of a measure being voted on in the state assembly this summer that would secure churches’ definitive right to meet in public schools?

We’re very confident. We will definitely make a lot of noise. The main issue is whether they will allow democracy to have its way … whether they will let the issue come to the floor for a vote.

How, over the 20 years of litigating this case, has ADF been able to help the nearly 100 New York churches affected by the city’s actions?    

The Bronx Household of Faith, the right to worship movement, has brought churches to work together like I’ve never seen before in New York City. If it wasn’t for ADF, we would have been history. Without them, public schools would have been closed and shut down to every church. ADF came to our rescue and right now, we have all of our churches being able to rent from public schools. The fight continues, and ADF is there to help us. We couldn’t do it without them.

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