It isn't just the issues of women’s health, medical insurance and contraception that have lately irritated relations between church and civil authority. In New York City, a lengthy battle over church usage of public property has raised another front in a fight that has its roots in how society chooses to organize itself.
Approximately 60 churches, mainly small Christian denominations, use space in the New York public schools for their Sunday worship services. The space would normally be vacant because schools are usually closed for classes over the weekend.
Even though the space is available, using that space raises the same theoretical and political questions about the separation of church and state that have long been an irritant on the national landscape. The Obama administration’s recent rulings about church-affiliated institutions and their policies in paying for services -- such as contraception -- are another case in point.
Both fights test just how rigid the wall between church and government should be.
“I have real concerns,” New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on his radio show this week, referring to the churches' use of school space. The city has been trying to oust the schools.
“Separation of church and state are one of the basics of our country.... The more religious you are the more you should want to keep the separation, because someday the religion that the state picks as the 'state religion' might not be yours. The way to solve that is to not have a state religion.”
The battle in New York has been going on for almost 17 years.
The latest skirmish occurred this week when a federal district judge issued a 10-day restraining order that again blocked the city from enforcing its ban on allowing the churches to use the schools. A higher court has already upheld city policy, citing separation of church and state, but U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska held that there were still questions to be resolved.
The city is appealing the ruling. But in the meantime, the services can continue for at least two more Sundays.
At a Friday news conference, pastors told reporters they welcomed the ruling even if it was temporary and the issue's outcome still undecided. “It’s been a real roller-coaster ride,” the Rev. Jon Storck, pastor at Grace Fellowship in Queens, told the Associated Press.
Complicating the issue is a bill that would force the city to change its policy. That measure is pending in the state Legislature.
The battle over where to draw boundaries between church and state authority is long-standing in Western traditions.
For example, Jesus is quoted in the Gospels as saying: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's," generally interpreted as asserting a difference in the separate spheres of authority.
That sentiment of separation was enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
But the degree of separation is constantly being defined in the courts.