Seven Arrested in New York for Protesting a Ban Against Churches Seven Arrested in New York for Protesting a Ban Against Churches
Seven Arrested in New York for Protesting a Ban Against Chur

Seven Arrested in New York for Protesting a Ban Against Chur

Seven Arrested in New York for Protesting a Ban Against Churches

by Dan Wooding, ASSIST News Service

Police arrested a New York City Councilman and Pastor Fernando Cabrera, Pastor Bill Devlin, and five others Thursday morning on charges of “criminal trespassing.” Their alleged trespass was kneeling and singing two hymns outside the doors of the New York City Law Department.

According to a story written by Tiffany Owens for www.worldmag.com, the protest was part of an ongoing effort to overturn the city’s ban against religious groups’ use of public schools for worship services, scheduled to go into effect on February 12th. Before they knelt, the seven were standing with more than 50 people holding signs outside the building. Police then held them in custody for three hours.

“Moments after they were released, Devlin and Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jordan Lorence met me at Ace Hotel in midtown Manhattan,” she wrote. “When I asked Devlin what he thought about getting arrested, he grinned and said, ‘It’s my 28th arrest since I’ve been saved.’ It probably won’t be his last: Devlin plans to be out there protesting again next week and wants more pastors to join him.

“Devlin, pastor of Manhattan Bible Church, said the ban assaults freedom of religion and speech. Lorence added that the case is based on a fundamental misinterpretation of the Constitution: He argues that forbidding private speech because it’s religious is not protecting the separation of church and state, but instead is suppressing freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

She added that Devlin doesn’t have a “dog in the fight.” His church has 30,000 square feet of space to use, but he is fighting for the 160 congregations likely to be homeless if the ban isn’t overturned by February 12th. Those congregations that need meeting space now pay rent to financially strapped schools, which seems like a marriage made in heaven.

The rationale for banning religious groups’ use of public school space is that “impressionable children” might think that government is endorsing religious belief, said Tiffany Owens.

Lorence and Devlin are afraid, she went on, that the school-use ban will eventually become a broader ban against religious organizations meeting in any state-funded building, including university auditoriums that house worship services of large churches. For example, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York pays rent to hold services at Hunter College.

Lorence said the ban reflects an irrational and anti-religion sentiment in New York, one that portrays religion as “dangerous and something that must be kept entirely out of the public square.” He added that the ban suggests that churches and religious groups are “piranhas and parasites,” even though they often house community-friendly ministries to the poor. “Our city is trying to do away with faith,” Lorence said. “We can tolerate everybody but religious viewpoints. That’s pretty scary.”

In a follow up story, Alex Kratz, writing Friday for www.norwoodnews.org, said that “The biggest story in the Bronx this week was the arrest yesterday of City Councilman Fernando Cabrera who was handcuffed by police and charged with trespassing for kneeling in front of the entrance 100 Church Street in downtown Manhattan, the building that houses the city’s law department, and conducting a brief ‘prayer protest.’

“He was not alone. In fact, Cabrera was one of seven arrested yesterday and was only there to support the organizers of the protest. The primary organizer was Pastor Dimas Salaberrios who heads Infinity New York Church at the Bronx River Houses. Cabrera didn’t go there expecting to get arrested; he had made plans to meet with other church leaders soon after the protest.

“Salaberrios, on the other hand, had a pretty good idea police would forcibly remove them from blocking the building’s entrance and take them into custody. And unlike Cabrera, it was not the first time Salaberrios had been arrested.

The 38 year-old Salaberrios says he spent a good part of his youth caught up in the street life and did time in jail for criminal offenses. He isn’t proud of the person he used to be, but says it eventually led him to dedicate his life to preaching the gospel and curbing violence in New York City, which he’s done at the Bronx River Houses for the past seven years.

“Completed in 1951 and run by the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the The Bronx River Houses gave birth to a number of hip hop legends (like Afrika Bambaata) as well as entrenched gang rivalries and a legacy of violence.”

Kratz went on to say, “Although gangs still operate in and around the Bronx River Houses, Salaberrios says there has not been one homicide there for the past six years. His church has had a lot to do with that, he says. In addition to holding services in the community center on Wednesdays and Sundays, Salaberrios’ Infinity Church also volunteers there, organizes an annual family day event and contributed $30,000 to the center for upgrades to the facilities.”

“We broke up the gangs there,” Salaberrios says.

Infinity pays NYCHA $350 back into city coffers to rent out space for worship services at Bronx River and Salaberrios says NYCHA officials have praised their calming presence, he said.

“But on December 17th, Salaberrios received a call from a NYCHA official saying organization would no longer be able to accept the church’s rent after December 31st due to the Bronx Household of Faith ruling, which upheld the city’s ban on worship services inside public schools. Upon hearing this, Salaberrios says his heart jumped into his throat and wouldn’t move. He went to the hospital where doctors told him his heart was stressed, but fortunately not damaged.

“Along with Pastor Joseph Fletcher of Bronx Bible Churches, who rents out space at the Sotomayor Houses in Soundview, Salaberrios called up NYCHA to ask them to re-evaluate their stance. They did, according to Salaberrios, saying both churches could remain at their locations until at least Feb. 12 while the agency conferred with the law department and decided what would happen. Believing their fate lay in the hands of a law department that vigorously pursued the Department of Education’s policy against worship in schools, Salaberrios organized the “prayer protest” to bring light to the situation.”

Now here’s where it gets murky.

“The law department insists it never directed or advised NYCHA to ban worship in its facilities. NYCHA says it hasn’t instituted a worship ban, but does say it is reviewing all of its rental arrangements, religious or not, and has been since the beginning of the year. Officials at NYCHA says the churches can continue to worship at its facilities for the time being,” said Kratz.

So, what’s going on?

He added that Salaberrios says he and other clergy are confused and aren’t getting straight answers. “That’s why we need down to the heart of this thing,” he says.

“In any case, Cabrera says the arrests and subsequent publicity may have done the trick. Today, he said NYCHA officials indicated the churches would be allowed to stay indefinitely,” said Kratz.

“If that doesn’t turn out to be true, Salaberrios says he’s prepared to take the fight back to the law department next Thursday and spend more time in jail if that’s what it takes to stay at Bronx River.”

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