Church must hide crosses for school use

Gazette Photo by John Ruch The plaque next to First Baptist Church’s front door that may have to be covered for church-state separation.

First Baptist Church will have to hide crosses and other religious symbols to avoid violating the Constitution when Bridge Boston Charter School operates in its worship space starting next month.

Separation of church and state could mean that First Baptist has to cover a cross-bearing plaque next to its front door and skip any Christmas Nativity scene on the lawn, according to the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“A public school needs to not have all the trappings of religion in the building,” said ACLU staff attorney Sarah Wunsch. “They may have to cover the cross [at the front door] while school is in session or when kids arrive.”

The school and the church already had complicated plans to swap furniture twice a week in the shared space at 633 Centre St. Most religious items inside the building would be in storage during school uses under that plan.

“There is absolutely no intent on anybody’s part for the school to have any religious affiliation,” said First Baptist Pastor Ashlee Wiest-Laird. “But if you’re asking if we’re going to hide the fact we’re a church, we’re not.”

But the church may have to do exactly that, at least during school hours.

Bridge Boston Executive Director Jug Chokshi said he will ask the church’s permission to cover up First Baptist’s cross-bearing nameplate next to the front door. The door also has a church decal.

“We certainly thought about this [issue] quite a bit,” Chokshi said. “We’ve done as much as we could’ve done to separate the church from the school. There shouldn’t be any public display of religious stuff.”

That will include removing church bulletin boards and pamphlets. The school will use only the street address, not the church name, in its publications, and will hang its own banner on the building, he said.

Some other materials may be harder to move, such as a shelf of Bibles, Wiest-Laird said. “If they need to put a sheet over them, they can do it,” she said.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government—including public schools—from endorsing religion. Charter schools are a type of public school. First Baptist also has First Amendment responsibility when it accepts public school funds, in this case for rent, Wunsch said.

The unusual case of a school operating in a church comes from space crises for both organizations. First Baptist’s building was damaged in a 2005 fire, and its main sanctuary is still not rebuilt. The congregation worships in the basement rooms that will be rented to Bridge Boston.

Bridge Boston, a new charter school, was slated to open in its own Roxbury building—a former convent, as it happens. But community opposition due to traffic concerns drove them out on a last-minute search for space. The school will operate kindergarten classes in the church for a year while seeking a permanent home.

In a previous school-church controversy, the 1989 case Spacco v. Town of Bridgewater, a federal court judge warned against cutting corners on church and state separation.

“In the midst of a budgeting crisis or other practical problems, local officials may lose sight of their responsibilities under the First Amendment,” the judge wrote. “This, however, is impermissible and unacceptable.”

The Spacco case was extreme, with the Catholic Church renting space to a public school and restricting what could be taught there. The school also had to deal with displays of crucifixes and religious statues, in part by using an entrance from which they could not be seen. The court noted that the display of religious items is not the problem, but rather the context that links them to the school.

First Baptist also has banners on streetlight poles along Centre Street that read “Renewed by Faith,” a reference to the post-fire rebuilding campaign. Those banners are not an issue for the school use because they are not on the church property and do not link the school and church, Wunsch said.

However, she added, they could present a different constitutional problem, depending on the city’s policy on allowing light pole banners. If the city allows anyone to hang message-containing banners, then it is legally allowed as a public forum. But if the city allows only certain messages, then the First Baptist banners could be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, Wunsch said.

Mayor’s Office spokesperson Christopher Loh could not immediately say what the city’s policy is on light pole banners.

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