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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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