New York City’s Pre-K Program’s Church-State Problem

upk

New York City’s school system is no stranger to church state problems. Since 2005, the city has rented space for public schools in religious buildings, causing conflicts ranging from lease provisions that require students to be taken off-site for state-mandated sex education classes to students having to walk by crosses and other religious images as they make their way to school. Last year, the City awarded $19.8 million in funds to religious schools to hire security guards. This school year, New York City’s Department of Education will be dealing with another church state issue as the city enrolls the largest number of four year olds ever into its pre-kindergarten program.

In September, tens of thousands of pre-kindergarten students will be attending class for the first time as part of the De Blasio Administration’s hallmark universal full day pre-k (UPK) program, now in its third year.[1] In order to reach its enrollment goals, the city has been urging religious schools and community organizations to host the UPK program, since most public schools have reached capacity. The city is now providing religious schools roughly $10,000 per student, raising potential conflicts with church state laws. More problematically, under a guidance document issued by the De Blasio administration these religious schools are permitted to teach from religious texts, so long as they do so “objectively as part of a secular program of education,” and are allowed to preference hiring teachers that share the school’s religion. While schools must cover religious symbols on their exterior entrance and UPK class rooms, they need not do so where this is “not practicable.” De Blasio also issued a rule allowing UPK programs to hold breaks for optional prayer.

In New York State, citizens are protected from government advancement of religion by both the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the government from passing any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” and the so-called “Blaine Amendment” of the New York Constitution. New York’s Blaine Amendment is more restrictive than the Establishment Clause, and maintains that the State should not use public money in aid “of any school or institution of learning wholly or in part under the control or direction of any religious denomination, or in which any denominational tenet or doctrine is taught.”[2]

Unfortunately, both of these protections have been substantially watered down over the years by federal and state court decisions that have allowed the government to fund religious schools through various programs. For example, the Supreme Court decision Agostini v. Felton upheld a New York State program that sent public school teachers into parochial schools to teach remedial education. The New York State Supreme Court found in College of New Rochelle v. Nyquist that a college’s affiliation with religion did not make it ineligible for state aid under the Blaine Amendment, unless the “affiliated religious denomination controls or directs the institution towards a religious end” or the college is “controlled or directed to a degree so as to enable the religious authorities to propagate and advance—or at least attempt to do so—their religion.”

Despite this case law, New York’s UPK program poses opportunities for violations of the Establishment Clause and Blaine Amendment. A significant issue is the fact that UPK students are so young. Some courts have placed heightened scrutiny in deciding whether there was an Establishment Clause violation when vulnerable groups, like young students, are involved. In Rusk v. Crestview Local Schools for example, a district court ruled that an elementary school violated the Establishment Clause by distributing flyers advertising community activities sponsored by churches to “impressionable elementary students” who might believe the activities were school-endorsed.[3] This decision was overruled by the Appeals court which found that the parents were the ones who would receive and observe the flyers not the kids, therefore quelling concerns that the flyers would leave an impression on the students. However, the district court’s decision shows that courts sometimes take the age and vulnerability of school students into account when deciding whether an act violates the Establishment Clause.

The potential for coercive indoctrination in the UPK program is real. Publicly-funded UPK programs are supposed be available for all students regardless of religious belief, and there does not appear to be any clear information on the City’s Pre-K Finder to let parents know that a program is housed in a religious institution. Thus, for example, a Muslim or atheist family could apply for a UPK program that is located in a Christian school either because they were not aware of its religious identity, they did not realize that such schools are permitted to teach religious texts, practice coreligionist hiring, and hold prayer breaks, or simply because of a lack of alternative options close to their home. This could leave the four-year-old child in a position where they have to see religious symbols that are in direct conflict with their religious teachings every day, wear a uniform bearing the religious name of their school, read religious materials, watch their fellow students break for prayer, and follow instruction from teachers and an administration that practices a faith different from their own. It is not hard to see how such a scenario could lead to impermissible indoctrination of an impressionable young mind.

Church state issues in education are complicated, especially in a city like New York which is one of the most religiously diverse cities in the nation.[4]   However, law and policy makers have a responsibility to make sure that students are in culturally and religiously sensitive learning environments that respect and pay homage to our city’s religious diversity. Children’s minds are too impressionable to be subjected to religious materials and practices that could potentially indoctrinate them with a particular religion.

[1] Ben Chapman, Mayor De Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Program Still Failing to Reach Some Families, New York Daily News (April 19,2016) http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/poor-new-yorkers-left-free-universal-pre-k-article-1.2607773

[2] College of New Rochelle v. Nyquist, 326 N.Y.S.2d 765, 765 (1971)

[3] Rusk v. Crestview Local Schools, 220 F.Supp.2d 854 (6th Cir. 2002)

[4] Jed Kelko, America’s Most Religiously Diverse Cities, Citylab (Dec. 20, 2012) http://www.citylab.com/politics/2012/12/americas-most-religiously-diverse-cities/4227/