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Separation of Church and School

FROM our apartment you can see the front door of our children’s public school. It’s a bright red double door made of solid wood and framed in brown-red brick. Last summer I spent a lot of time looking at that door with anticipation and excitement. We had just moved to the Upper East Side of Manhattan from California, and had chosen the neighborhood for its school.

On the second Sunday after classes started, happy and hectic, I glanced out the window and saw a large group of people gathered in front of the schoolhouse door. They had a table, brochures, a tray of lollipops and a four-foot-tall sign. It turned out that they were part of an evangelical ministry and that our school was their church.

I decided to attend the service.

“Notice the names of the children on pieces of paper,” the pastor advised his flock. I looked around and saw the posters the kids had made, with their charming snapshots from summer holidays and rambling lists of likes and dislikes. “Pray for them!” the pastor continued. “Pray that the families of this school will come to know Jesus and say, ‘This is a House of God!’ ”

The pastor’s daughter, a lively 8-year-old who attends a private Christian school, took me on a brief tour through parts of the school I had not yet seen. “This is my dad’s church!” she enthused.

After the service, I chatted with the pastor and asked how much it cost to rent the school. “Oh no,” he said. “We don’t pay rent! New York is way too expensive! We just pay the custodians’ fee.” I learned that the church was using the school not just on Sunday mornings and evenings, but also on some Wednesday and Friday nights, and that it paid a pittance for the privilege — far less than the nearly $100,000 that the P.T.A. spent last year to renovate the restrooms the church members were using.
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