Churches in Public Schools: Perfect Fit or Invitation for Controversy?

Schools are becoming a popular option for churches looking for a temporary or semi-permanent location. However, sometimes these moves can be controversial.

Across the country, public schools are letting churches move into their buildings, unpack trailers filled with portable sanctuaries, and convert gyms and auditoriums into worship centers for the day. A new church that is trying to build members and keep down expenses gets the use of a big space in a centrally located area with good parking. The rent is usually reasonable compared to what the church would have to pay if it rented space in a commercial building. It is just a good fit.

By leasing its spaces off hours, a school also can make a tidy sum. According to a 2010 article in the Palm Beach Post, a district made $3.6 million in one year alone by renting its facilities. The school leased to poetry slams, to birthday parties and family reunions, and to any community organization that would pay its fees. But of all these groups, the district liked to rent to churches best of all. That’s because the church tended to provide a stable flow of cash and only needed the space when the schools were empty.

So churches and schools can be perfect partners. Churches often stay in the school for years without anybody knowing that it is even there. As with any commercial property arrangement, however, there are downsides that should be considered, too.

Churches in Public Schools Can Draw Controversy

When churches have located in schools, people sometimes raise the issue of the separation of church and state, protesting the use of public facilities for private religious purposes. Schools have also been sued by churches for discrimination when the school tries to deny a church a lease while they continue to rent to other community groups.

A Bronx church, for example, sued the Board of Education of New York, which tried for a decade to ban the use of public schools by churches in the city. In that case, a federal appeals court ruled against the church last year and upheld the city’s right to ban churches from public school facilities. That case left roughly 60 churches with permits in limbo. As of early this year, the battle still continued.

Schools have also become embroiled in spats with churches when they try to raise rents or evict the church. Schools have been known to increase the rents as a strategy to get the church to move out. Back in 2009, for example, a Jacksonville, FL, district raised its rent from $50 a weekend to $60 an hour, forcing a small church to move out.

Study: Most Americans Favor Churches in Public Schools

This being said, these negative experiences seem to be the exception. It would seem that most Americans like the idea — or at least don’t care that much – that churches are allowed to lease public school property after hours just like any other community group. One 2012 survey conducted by the faith-based LifeWay Research estimated that two-thirds of Americans favor allowing churches to rent from schools.

Clearly, this has been a growing trend across the country. According to a 2011 article in USA Today, the nation’s five largest school districts and the five fastest growing school districts had lease agreements with churches. In most cases, they had multiple agreements. Back in 2011, the Los Angeles school district, for example, issued 35 permits to churches within its 900 schools, and four churches had permits to operate in the fast-growing Kern High School District in Bakersfield.

Churches and Schools Can Be a Perfect Fit

Provided the fit is right, churches and school have an excellent opportunity to help each other. A church can use its time in a school to establish itself in a neighborhood and get its finances in order. The school can be a natural stepping stone to a permanent building. For their part, schools can make money off their buildings that would otherwise sit unused after-hours. Also, when a school opens its doors to community groups, it is helping the community at large. Oftentimes, the members of churches and other community groups live within the district and are paying for the public school facilities in the form of school taxes.

As we have discussed, however, sometimes these arrangements do not work out. A church and school should thoroughly investigate their options when considering a lease agreement, and they should seek help when establishing the terms. An experienced real estate consultant can help churches and schools determine if they are a good fit for a long-term lease.

If your church, nonprofit, or school is considering renting or leasing out property, you don’t have to go it alone. You can get a thorough analysis of your available options from a consultant whose community values align with your own. Contact DCG Real Estate today to learn more.