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Worshippers Kicked Out Of N.Y. School On Principle
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Worshippers Kicked Out Of N.Y. School On Principle

Religion

Worshippers Kicked Out Of N.Y. School On Principle
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  • Grace Fellowship Church has been meeting at PS-150 in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., since 2006. The congregation is part of a network called the Redeemer Church Planting Center, which seeks to "plant" churches in nontraditional venues in different neighborhoods to attract the unaffiliated.
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    Grace Fellowship Church has been meeting at PS-150 in the Sunnyside neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., since 2006. The congregation is part of a network called the Redeemer Church Planting Center, which seeks to "plant" churches in nontraditional venues in different neighborhoods to attract the unaffiliated.
    Photos by Fred Mogul/WNYC/WNYC
  • Pastor Jon Storck moved to Queens from Memphis, Tenn., two years ago to lead Presbyterian-affiliated Grace Fellowship. A recent court ruling means this and more than 50 other churches will no longer be able to meet for worship in public schools.
    Hide caption
    Pastor Jon Storck moved to Queens from Memphis, Tenn., two years ago to lead Presbyterian-affiliated Grace Fellowship. A recent court ruling means this and more than 50 other churches will no longer be able to meet for worship in public schools.
    Fred Mogul/WNYC
  • Richard Park and about 80 worshippers gather each Sunday in PS-150's auditorium. Other than the setting, this is typical of many modern Protestant services, with an emphasis on singing and Bible study and a relatively informal rapport between minister and congregation.
    Hide caption
    Richard Park and about 80 worshippers gather each Sunday in PS-150's auditorium. Other than the setting, this is typical of many modern Protestant services, with an emphasis on singing and Bible study and a relatively informal rapport between minister and congregation.
    Fred Mogul/WNYC
  • Meeyoung Choi, a Korean-American who grew up in Argentina, translates much of the preaching from English to Spanish for Grace Fellowship's Latino worshippers, who wear radio-transmitted headsets. The church has donated around $2,000 worth of audio equipment to the school.
    Hide caption
    Meeyoung Choi, a Korean-American who grew up in Argentina, translates much of the preaching from English to Spanish for Grace Fellowship's Latino worshippers, who wear radio-transmitted headsets. The church has donated around $2,000 worth of audio equipment to the school.
    Fred Mogul/WNYC
  • Luis Barriga uses a transmitter and text to follow the weekly Bible teaching. Today's lesson: Being a Christian entails hardship, sacrifice and conflict. "Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child. Children will rise against their parents and have them put to death," Jesus tells his disciples in the Book of Mark, Chapter 13.
    Hide caption
    Luis Barriga uses a transmitter and text to follow the weekly Bible teaching. Today's lesson: Being a Christian entails hardship, sacrifice and conflict. "Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child. Children will rise against their parents and have them put to death," Jesus tells his disciples in the Book of Mark, Chapter 13.
    Fred Mogul/WNYC
  • Murals in the PS-150 auditorium depict scenes from the cultural and industrial arts. Pastor Jon Storck says public school gives the congregation a good position in the community – and other venues, even if nearby, spacious and affordable, wouldn't be as effective. "We look at this as a place to minister," Storck says. "It's a vital part of our mission."
    Hide caption
    Murals in the PS-150 auditorium depict scenes from the cultural and industrial arts. Pastor Jon Storck says public school gives the congregation a good position in the community – and other venues, even if nearby, spacious and affordable, wouldn't be as effective. "We look at this as a place to minister," Storck says. "It's a vital part of our mission."
    Fred Mogul/WNYC
  • Rob and Kasey Powers have been coming to Grace Fellowship for two years, and now are joined by their 6-month-old son, Simon. Initially, Rob said, he felt like he was back in elementary school. "It was a little odd," he said, "but this is New York City – you get used to stuff quickly."
    Hide caption
    Rob and Kasey Powers have been coming to Grace Fellowship for two years, and now are joined by their 6-month-old son, Simon. Initially, Rob said, he felt like he was back in elementary school. "It was a little odd," he said, "but this is New York City – you get used to stuff quickly."
    Fred Mogul/WNYC
  • James Hall, a native of Omaha, Neb., was looking for a church that wasn't too traditional and attracted many different kinds of people. He understands the argument for evicting Grace Fellowship for separation of church and state. "But churches are paying for the space, like any group would be paying for it, and it's fine for schools to rent from churches," Hall said.
    Hide caption
    James Hall, a native of Omaha, Neb., was looking for a church that wasn't too traditional and attracted many different kinds of people. He understands the argument for evicting Grace Fellowship for separation of church and state. "But churches are paying for the space, like any group would be paying for it, and it's fine for schools to rent from churches," Hall said.
    Fred Mogul/WNYC
  • PS-150's neighborhood is one of the city's most diverse, with a large population of immigrants. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religious groups can meet in public schools for Bible study and prayer, but the high court also recently let stand an appeals court ruling that draws a line at schools playing host to regular worship services.
    Hide caption
    PS-150's neighborhood is one of the city's most diverse, with a large population of immigrants. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that religious groups can meet in public schools for Bible study and prayer, but the high court also recently let stand an appeals court ruling that draws a line at schools playing host to regular worship services.
    Fred Mogul/WNYC

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

To New York City now, where small churches have been meeting in public schools for years. Some want cheap rental space. Others are part of a church planting movement. The idea is to plant congregations in unconventional settings to attract potential members. Last year, a federal court ruled that these school gatherings violate separation of church and state laws.

And as Fred Mogul, from member station WNYC reports, the congregations now have one week left to vacate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: For the past six years, Grace Fellowship Church has been meeting on Sundays in the auditorium of PS-150 in Queens. It looks like a lot of assembly halls in old red-brick schools with wooden seats, terrazzo floors and murals depicting scenes of art and culture.

When Rob Powers first started coming to Grace Fellowship, he felt a little bit like he was back in elementary school.

ROB POWERS: It was a little odd. But I mean its New York City, so you get use to stuff quickly.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MOGUL: He says the non-traditional setting is part of the appeal.

POWERS: To me, the style of worship service is a big deal. So I'm not really into the huge congregation where you just blend in. So, it's nice to have a smaller, family-style worship.

MOGUL: As of last year, about 160 churches meeting in city schools. It's not clear how many still are. New York City has been trying to evict the churches for well over a decade. The city prevailed the last year when a federal appeals court defined what kind of religious groups can meet in schools and what kind can't.

DONNA LIEBERMAN: You have a right to pray, of course. You have a right to worship. Freedom of religion is critical.

MOGUL: Donna Lieberman leads the New York Civil Liberties Union, which joined New York City in the lawsuit.

LIEBERMAN: But freedom for a church to take over a school and convert it to a house of worship is not what our Constitution stands for.

MOGUL: The churches argue they're not taking over schools and they're not trying to convert anyone, a claim the NYCLU challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court has said religious clubs can meet in schools for Bible study, prayer and other explicitly religious activities. Yet, the High Court also accepted the appeals court decision that formal worship services are different than club activities, and violate the separation of church and state.

Back at PS-150, Grace Fellowship congregants are eating pizza in the school cafeteria after services. Pastor Jon Storck says the church has helped build and repair things at the school, and both sides benefit from the church's presence there. He's applied to the city for a new permit to rent space for the activities that are allowed.

REVEREND JON STORCK: The Court is not banning prayer and religious instruction and singing of hymns. They're just banning that in the context of a worship service. So, we would stop having church worship. But come together and eat together, we probably have basically - you got Sunday school class.

MOGUL: The city's Department of Education wouldn't comment on Grace Fellowship's application. The church has a temporary place to worship after next Sunday, but members are praying there'll be way for them to stay in school.

For NPR News, I'm Fred Mogul in New York.

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