Worshipping in school buildings

Some Tri-State churches hold services in educational facilities

Some Tri-State churches hold services in educational facilities

February 02, 2004|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

Without a permanent chapel of its own, Crossroads Church is pleased to pray and teach each Sunday at E. Russell Hicks Middle School in Hagerstown.

"It's a great environment," Pastor Chuck Frank said. "It's a neutral environment. We're after people who don't go to church."

Real Life Community Church, which woos the same nontraditional crowd, holds worship services and Sunday school classes at Eastern Elementary School in Hagerstown.

Given a choice, though, Real Life might be somewhere else.

Real Life Pastor Jim Chevalier said his church pays $20,000 to $25,000 in rent a year to use a gym, a cafeteria, a music room and a foyer.


"It's very expensive," he said.

No other attractive offers have emerged. Chevalier said some local landlords have quoted him $6,000 to $7,000 a month for rent, which he's turned down. You could rent a storefront in northern Virginia for less, he said.

For a pleasant setting, a reasonable rent or some other motive, churches may set up in public school buildings.

A 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed an evangelical church in Center Moriches, N.Y., to use a public school to show a six-part film series on Christian family values, establishing a precedent. The district had let other public and private groups use school buildings, but tried to reject the church, known as Lamb's Chapel.

The Supreme Court decision overruled an appellate court and a lower court, which each ruled that a school building can be public, but with limited uses.

The ruling says churches are to be treated the same as other community groups. A school district may offer its facilities, and may charge rent, to all groups - or to no group; all must be treated equally.

"We're pretty strict, but we had no problem with that," said Robert Boston, the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State in Washington, D.C.

The American Center for Law and Justice of Virginia Beach, Va., a religious freedom legal watchdog group, hailed the decision as significant.

"In many cities and counties throughout the United States, local school facilities are the town halls of the community," the group wrote on its Web site. "Access to these town halls is essential for Christians who want to have issues addressed from their perspective.

"Although many in a community may not feel comfortable going to a church to hear a presentation on a contemporary issue, people do feel at ease attending meetings held in community facilities, such as school auditoriums and civic centers."

For people who have bad associations of "trappings of steeples and stained glass in their mind," a chapel in a school works well, Frank said.

The majority of Real Life's congregants were non-Christian - either dissatisfied or "unchurched" - when they joined, Chevalier said.

Real Life, which is Southern Baptist, started using Eastern Elementary six years ago. Chevalier said demographic and growth studies showed that only six churches were serving a well-populated area.

The church distinguishes itself with a high-energy worship team, drama and videos, casual dress and oldies rock 'n' roll songs with lyrics adapted to fit the faith, Chevalier said.

"The Bible is the same, but every methodology that you think of in church is up for grabs," he said.

Crossroads, a Brethren in Christ church, has an alternative approach, too, with a band and PowerPoint presentations, Frank said. It has used E. Russell Hicks Middle School for about three years.

As the 9:15 a.m. Sunday service is winding down, Frank hurries to Hagerstown Cinema 10 on Leitersburg Pike, where a second service is held at 10:30 a.m.

Real Life and Crossroads are two of the three churches using public schools in Washington County, according to Dennis McGee, the Board of Education's director of facilities.

The third is Knoxville Bible Church, which uses Potomac Heights Elementary School, he said.

At least two Jefferson County, W.Va., schools - Page Jackson Elementary near Charles Town and Shipley Elementary near Bolivar - are home to local churches, Associate Superintendent Beverly Hughes said.

"It's never been an issue," she said.

The school board must approve any request to use a school before 2 p.m. on a Sunday, Hughes said.

Churches also use schools in the Waynesboro (Pa.) Area School District, said Joyce Caiati, secretary to the business manager. She didn't know how many churches or which ones.

McGee noted that a 1993 opinion by the Maryland attorney general's office, cited in the state code, says, "If a school district allows any other community group to use public school facilities during non-instructional time, then it must provide religious groups with equal access to the facilities."

"I've had a number of people call to complain," McGee said. "I usually make a copy of the law and send it to them. I tell them to take it up with the government. The law's the law."

Backlash has manifested itself in varying ways, Chevalier said.

He said people have run over the church's sign, defaced the church's shed and called with nasty comments.

"We get a lot of vandalism from folks upset about us being (in school)," Chevalier said. "People are misinformed about the separation of church and state."

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