Bill de Blasio — an Unlikely Ally of Religion in New York City

The New York mayor has pledged to facilitate allowing houses of worship to rent space in the city's public schools on the same basis as other outside groups.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio talk with students at St. Francis of Assisi School in the Bronx on March 6, 2014.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio talk with students at St. Francis of Assisi School in the Bronx on March 6, 2014. (photo: Twitter/Bill de Blasio)

NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a secular progressive who grew up not attending church and is not affiliated with any religion, has shown himself to be an unlikely ally of his city’s diverse religious communities.

In late March, de Blasio announced that he would allow churches to continue using public schools for weekend services — after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review an appellate court’s ruling that upheld the New York City Board of Education’s policy against allowing houses of worship from renting space in city-owned buildings.

The mayor’s communications director, Wiley Norvel, told reporters that the administration is working to change the policy and “remains committed to ensuring that religious organizations are able to use space in city schools on the same terms provided to other groups.”

The mayor’s move to accommodate churches was welcomed by Jordan Lorence, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization that represented Bronx Household of Faith in its 20-year court battle against the city’s policy.

“What was very good news was Mayor de Blasio’s quick, decisive and principled action to say that religious groups could remain meeting in the schools for their worship services and that he is taking steps to revise the policy to permit equal access for all community groups,” Lorence told the Register.

Lorence also said he was disappointed the Supreme Court chose not to take up the Bronx Household of Faith’s case.

“It allows these appeals-court decisions to remain in effect that say it’s constitutional for school districts to have a policy that singles out religious worship services for exclusion. That is not good news that that is still hanging around in the law,” said Lorence, though adding that the 2nd Circuit Court’s ruling at least does not give grounds for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to file lawsuits to stop churches from renting out space in public schools.

“The ACLU could not say that the court of appeal’s decision requires you to kick out all the churches,” Lorence said. “It doesn’t say that. It says if a school district wants to adopt a policy like this it can. But it can also adopt an equal-access policy.”


The Political Landscape

Almost counterintuitively, the political landscape in New York City — a fiercely partisan city in a reliably Democratic state — is rather favorable to organized religious communities, as evidenced by the New York City Council passing a resolution in May 2013 that called upon the New York State Legislature to pass and the governor to sign legislation amending the New York State Education Law to afford houses of worship equal access to school property.

During a press conference last year, de Blasio said he believed that faith organizations that played by the same rules as any community nonprofit deserve access to public-school facilities. Alliance Defending Freedom noted in court filings that tens of thousands of other organizations in the city regularly use many of the 1,200 public-school buildings in New York.

“You know, they have to go through the same application process, wait their turn for space, pay the same rent — but I think they deserve access. They play a very, very important role, in terms of providing social services and other important community services, and I think they deserve that right,” de Blasio said.

Alliance Defending Freedom has also said that churches meeting in public schools for worship services “have fed the poor and needy, assisted in rehabilitating drug addicts and gang members, helped rebuild marriages and families and provided for the disabled.” The churches have also donated computers, musical instruments and air conditioners and have painted the interiors of inner-city schools.


Other Steps

De Blasio, the city’s first Democratic mayor since David Dinkins in the early 1990s, has taken other steps to accommodate religious interests. In March, he announced that the city’s public-school system would observe the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Adha (“Feast of the Sacrifice”) and Eid al-Fitr (“Feast of Breaking the Fast”). De Blasio also supports the right of Orthodox Jews to use oral suction during circumcisions, and he said he would allow Jewish yeshivas and Catholic schools to conduct midday prayers in taxpayer-funded pre-kindergarten programs.

While citing his desire to respect the city’s diversity and promote an inclusive culture in City Hall, de Blasio may also be adapting to the new political reality that churches can organize voters in a way that old political party structures are no longer capable of carrying out, said Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor emeritus of Hunter College in Manhattan.

“I think what has happened is the traditional political machines have been evaporating, and with them, the decline of patronage,” Sherrill told the Register. “There are liberal political organizations that can’t turn out large numbers of voters, that can’t do the traditional things they used to do on Election Day.”

Sherrill added, “On the other hand, clergyman can mobilize people. They can carry petitions to get people on the ballot. They can turn out voters on Election Day. You have good numbers of people who go to weekly services and who vote faithfully.”

The Orthodox Jewish community, particularly in Brooklyn, wields significant political influence in New York City politics, as does the growing evangelical-Christian community, which is comprised mainly of blacks and Latinos, said Sherrill, who added, “This is more than a marriage of convenience. I think it’s almost a necessity for the mayor. He has to have these alliances.”


Cardinal Dolan

Sherrill also noted the warm relations between de Blasio and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York. Two weeks into his mayoral term, de Blasio visited the cardinal’s residence next to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The pair visited a Catholic school pre-kindergarten class in the Bronx and worked together to have Pope Francis visit New York City when the Pope travels to the United States this September.

“Whoever thought that de Blasio’s two greatest allies would be the real-estate board and the cardinal? And that, in fact, has happened,” said Sherrill, referring to the mayor’s engagement with the New York Real Estate Board to develop more affordable and market-rate housing in the city.

Partnering with City Hall also helps religiously affiliated organizations and agencies gain access to city contracts for social services. At a time when parishes and Catholic schools are closing, Cardinal Dolan, by working with de Blasio, helped secure an infusion of city money by having Catholic schools operate pre-kindergarten classes.

“De Blasio gets what he needs from religious leaders, and they’re getting resources they desperately need, so it works out,” Sherrill said.

Fran Davies, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of New York’s Catholic-school system, told Bloomberg News that the city’s authorization to permit students in publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs to pray during the middle of the day presents new opportunities for religious education.

“Now that we will have them,” Davies said, “we see them as an opportunity. We were used to the idea of boundaries between secular and religious, and we didn’t have a problem with those in the past.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.