Christians love you, Mayor Bloomberg

Dear Mayor Bloomberg:

I've long been a fan. I've voted for you each time you've run. You've done so much for our great city, and for that I'm very grateful.

When I visited the 9/11 Memorial I was thrilled to see that you took such a strong leadership role in making it such a powerful tribute to our city and those that gave their lives to protect it that dark day.

I was on Times Square in September of 2009 when you so graciously addressed the 60,000 Christians gathered for Prayer on the Square. You asked us to do our part to help this great city. We certainly have. We've volunteered billions of dollars worth of volunteer hours to help New York on many levels. I've served many meals to the homeless of this city through a church meal program. I've served at church supported after-school programs. I spoke to one pastor who saw the murder rate in their neighborhood drop to zero after they established themselves in a community center. I know of many churches who have used their own funds to paint and renovate schools where they provide rent at times the building is not in use, and I was thrilled to read about how many churches are providing homes for public schools that have overgrown their campuses.

Haven't we answered your request? So, why are you forbidding us from renting space at public schools during off-hours? And why would you give a two-month eviction notice to 160 houses of worship who are now competing for space in one of the toughest real-estate markets on earth? We presented over 20,000 signatures asking you to let us continue this practice, which has been allowed in every major city in the US since our nation began. So why did you send a letter to our state congress asking them not to pass legislation that would allow this practice to continue?

Because houses of worship meet during off-hours at public schools and pay rent there is no conflict with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The phrase "Separation of church and state" is nowhere in the Constitution. It is a handy phrase for those who want to control the freedom of speech when it comes to religion. The Establishment Clause says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech..." By locking out houses of worship this policy is impinging on the free exercise of worship, and by controlling what groups can say (Bible study but not worship) it is abridging the freedom of speech. So the current policy of the New York City school board tramples on two elements of the First Amendment in order to avoid the appearance of a single school establishing a single religion. Muslim, Jewish, B'hai and Christian groups are all being evicted, so there's no chance of Congress establishing a single religion by the city allowing diverse houses of worship to rent from public schools. In the New York Times Speaker of the House, Sheldon Silver was quoted as saying, “It would open up the schools to anybody. It might include the Ku Klux Klan." Not that the KKK meets for worship, but they already have access to our schools. That was ruled on by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1978. Also, if state law allows houses of worship to rent from public schools it would be entirely possible for all four evicted groups to rent space from the same individual school because they meet at different times, all off-hours for the schools. But if concern for the perception of school children is the real reason for the eviction then you would force all schools to vacate churches as well.

It feels like religious persecution. I'm grateful that the Senate passed the bill with a veto-proof supermajority of 54 to 7. One of the strengths of our great nation has always been the freedom to worship. But this eviction honestly casts America in a poor light compared to many other countries known for their intolerance of religion.

Last month the Czech Republic decided to give billions to its churches because it stole property while operating under communism. I've worshiped legally in a government office in Hong Kong. Though their government grants more religious freedom than China, they are a Special Administrative Region of that officially atheist government. I also worshiped in a church in Shanghai built by communist government funds. China actually publishes more Bibles than any other country on earth according to their visa application website.

This is where our love for you kicks in. I cannot speak for all of the Jewish, Muslim, B'hai, or even Christian people that are facing eviction and, for many, closure or severe decrease in numbers and therefore income, by being given such a short eviction notice, but I can say for all of us that seek the heart of God that we love you despite this persecution. This is your last term as mayor of this great city. We don't want your lasting legacy to include the persecution of houses of worship and taking hundreds of thousands of dollars away from our public schools that will no longer be paid to them in rent.

When they were working on the mosque near Ground Zero you said: “We in New York . . . are Americans, each with an equal right to worship and pray where we choose. There is nowhere in the five boroughs that is off-limits to any religion. By affirming that basic idea, we will honor America’s values, and we will keep New York the most open, diverse, tolerant and free city in the world.” Please honor your own words.

My wife and I pray for you daily. We certainly pray that you will change your mind and allow houses of worship to continue to meet in public schools during off-hours. But we also pray for your health, your well-being, and for your peace.

Rich Swingle
Resident of New York City

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