CULTURE WATCH: Civil Disobedience (Part1)

By Wendell Cantrell

(This is the first of four articles examining the Christian response to civil disobedience.)

Most of the larger school districts in the US allow churches to use their buildings when classes are not being held. In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled that religious organizations must have equal access to public school space for activities like club meetings and religious lessons.    Many congregations that need meeting space have been more than willing to pay rent in a win/win situation that helps financially-challenged school districts. Historically, this had the appearance of a marriage made in heaven. Sadly, a divorce appears to be pending.

A recent appeals court decision in the Bronx of New York City bans worship services from schools, saying it could be implying government endorsement of a particular faith. The rationale for the banning of religious groups’ use of public school space: “impressionable children” might think that government is endorsing religious belief by allowing worship on the premises when students aren’t even there.

The Bronx Household of Faith, the small evangelical church in the “eye of the storm,” is in the midst of a 17-year legal battle with the city. The appeals court action actually upheld an existing state education law permitting school districts to ban the worship services, and in December, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. One hundred sixty congregations could be homeless if the ban isn’t overturned soon. Some of the affected churches, mostly small evangelical congregations, have already found new space. Others are struggling because the rent they pay to the schools, about $1,000 a month, is much less than the cost of renting commercial space. As of this writing, there has been an encouraging development. The State Senate acted in early February to trump the city policy, allowing churches the same access as other groups. Action of the full assembly and governor is pending.

Let’s look at three responses to the court decision by church leaders. First, there is Bill Devlin, pastor of Manhattan Bible Church. He and six others were arrested on charges of “criminal trespassing” as they knelt and sang two hymns outside the doors of the New York City Law Department. Devlin’s church isn’t affected by this ban as they don’t use school space, but he is fighting for his sister churches that could become homeless. Devlin is afraid that banning school rental will eventually become a broader ban against religious organizations meeting in any state-funded building, including university auditoriums that house worship services of large churches. For example, Timothy Keller’s church, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, pays rent to hold services at Hunter College.

Pastor Devlin’s advocate, Jorden Lorence of Alliance Defense Fund, believes the ban reflects an irrational and anti-religion sentiment in New York, one that portrays religion as “dangerous and something that must be kept entirely out of the public square.” He added that the ban suggests that churches and religious groups are “piranhas and parasites,” even though they often house community-friendly ministries to the poor. Lorence also said, “Our city is trying to do away with faith. They can tolerate anything but religious viewpoints. That’s pretty scary.”

Secondly, we have the “strong statement” response of the best known church in the region, the above mentioned Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Pastor Tim Keller made the following statement recently: “I am hopeful that the leaders of New York City and the legislators of New York State will see the value of a society that encourages all spheres of culture—the church, government, education, business, etc.—to work together for human flourishing.”

Thirdly, we have the “so what” response of James Kim, the senior pastor of Queenswest Church, whose members have been meeting at a Queens high school. He rejects the idea of fighting the court decision. He recently said, “I believe in the separation of church and state, and to be quite honest, I think that the church thrives when things like this happen.”

You might be thinking that all of this is a long way from good ole conservative Texas. To help you in considering more down-home scenarios, let’s take a glance at a recent forum discussion at a sister church1.  The forum could have been titled “When Do You Object?”  The four scenarios discussed included:

  • City officials showing up to check the safety of plumbing and electrical systems at your church. Only one professed libertarian felt that this was too great a concession to his freedom.
  • A church parking lot renovation.  Basically the local edict states that not a scoopful of dirt moves without the concession to plant expensive new trees and redesign the sidewalks in designated areas. About 25% objected to this and would prefer a new water filtration system, more water softener reviews on their site.
  • A church secretary resigns. The new anti-discrimination law mandates that every lifestyle or religious background be equally considered. With this scenario, the objections reached close to 90%.
  • The last scenario really gets dicey and hopefully is nowhere on the horizon. Your pastor retires and now your civil government at some level decides that they have the right to screen pastoral staff.  The objectors reached unanimity on this one.

The first two scenarios were pretty basic safety and environmental issues that we trust our local government to regulate. The remaining two are related to personnel and seem to have crossed the line over into “intrusive big-brotherism.”  Historically, we Christians have differed on what is considered to be crossing the line. We render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, including taxes, regardless of how excessive they may be. We need to be extremely careful to not start rendering to Caesar what is God’s. Over the next three issues in this series, we will look at biblical principles related to civil obedience, historical precedents for civil disobedience, and finally current issues where the decision may be called for.

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(1)  Joel Belz, World Magazine 2/11/12