OpEd: The Constitution is for everyone. Education should be too.

Our city has a crisis that goes far beyond where congregations gather on weekends. Let’s redirect the city’s energies into partnerships that advance our children.

By Fernando Cabrera and Jeremy Del Rio
[Originally published by A Journey through NYC Religions, 3/4/12]

Church mural on Livonia Street, Brooklyn

Our city has a crisis that goes far beyond where congregations gather on weekends.

Forty percent of New York City high school students drop out before graduation. Of those that do graduate, fewer than twenty-five percent of them are ready for college without remediation courses, and only thirteen percent of the Black and Latino graduate.

Instead of focusing on the crisis at hand and mobilizing all the resources that he can, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is spending his time and the City’s money trying to evict congregations from the schools. He doesn’t seem to perceive in them any value beyond a rent check.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera, D-Bronx

Last Friday, United States District Court Chief Judge Loretta Preska blocked Bloomberg’s misguided crusade. The mayor’s attempt to ban the churches from religious practices in legally available space for community groups violates the Constitutional right to worship which is guaranteed to all Americans.

On Sunday, armed with a federal restraining order against religious intolerance, dozens of these congregations that the mayor attempted to evict on February 12 were able to meet for services in the schools. This week the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected another attempt to rush the churches out the door.

The mayor continues to argue that New Yorkers are not smart enough to discern the difference between academic instruction that occurs during schools hours and activities conducted by congregations renting empty buildings during off hours. In the entire United States, Mayor Bloomberg is the only big city mayor and New York’s Department of Education is the only city school district that holds this view.

We invite Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to put an end to seventeen years of wasteful, taxpayer-funded litigation. He can do it if he will allow legislation on religious freedom to come to a floor vote in the Assembly. State Senate Democrats and Republicans have already voted overwhelmingly (54-7) to reject the mayor’s war on religious freedom three weeks ago. A large majority of the Assembly have indicated that they are ready to pass the bill. They recognize that the mayor has lost sight of the greater good of the poor communities in New York City in his pursuit of a grudge match against Christian churches and other religious groups.

It is about time that the mayor and speaker start to focus on how to utilize a community resource like the churches to help our schools instead of spending precious time and money to squelch them.

In fact, this is an opportunity for the mayor and the speaker to pivot the conversation from fruitless and divisive attacks on the churches to how New Yorkers of all faiths and non-faith can work together to transform the public schools. We can shift our energies from a landlord-tenant dispute to a long-term strategy that partners public schools with community stakeholders who can invest time and energy into our schools.

The churches need to shift their approach too. What might happen if the congregations under threat of eviction plus the religious people who support them shift their perception of public schools from a place with space to a place of service? Monday through Sunday, not just on Sunday.

Already, churches have provided small and large services to our public schools. Crossroads Christian Church in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn spearheaded the painting of a large mural that celebrates PS 102’s immigrant student diversity.

Jeremy Del Rio, 20/20 Vision for Schools

On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Abounding Grace Ministries has partnered with PS 34 for eighteen years to provide after school programs, beautification projects, and student and teacher appreciations. In the last three years the church has rented space at the school. This seems like a pretty fair deal: eighteen years of service plus rent for some space on Sunday when school is out.

This year, churches and ministries are giving students at Jamaica High School in Queens, Bread and Roses High School in Harlem, Grand Street Campus and Freedom Academy in Brooklyn for-credit extracurricular classes and clubs on music, drama, leadership, spoken word, sports, and online journalism.

Schools and congregations alike are places of learning, where people come to grow as individuals and in community. We invite the City of New York, the Department of Education, and New York City’s various faith communities to embrace this controversy as a uniquely teachable moment. Let us model for 1.1 million New York City public school students how neighbors can achieve something together more than just conflict.

The congregations offer the Mayor unique leverage in his fight for educational equity. In informal surveys at twenty worship services, 20/20 Vision for Schools has found that up to 90% of the people in the pews are directly or indirectly connected to a school as parents, students, teachers, custodians, administrators, or relatives. They are waiting to be appreciated and mobilized, not disrespected and pushed out of the schools.

Loving neighbors, pursuing justice, educating children – these are universal religious imperatives. When community and spiritual leaders nurture this motivation, exponential change in a city as diverse as New York is much more likely.

Now is the time. Let’s end needless litigation and redirect the city’s energies into partnerships that advance our students’ best interests.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera (D-BX) has led the effort to overturn Mayor Bloomberg’s policy legislatively. Jeremy Del Rio, Esq. directs 20/20 Vision for Schools, which has partnered community groups and local schools since 2008.

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