Controversy and Coronavirus Keep Church Plants Out of Schools

When Alabama megachurch pastor Chris Hodges liked recent social media posts from conservative commentator Charlie Kirk, he launched a chain of events that led to two of his church’s campuses being expelled from their meeting spaces in Birmingham public schools.

Hodges has met with African American leaders at Church of the Highlands and apologized for his engagement with “multiple insensitive social media posts.”

As pundits continue to debate whether the city’s expulsion represents viewpoint discrimination—former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions called it “an attack on both religious liberty and freedom of speech”—some Christian leaders wonder whether the case will draw more scrutiny toward the thousands of congregations who use leased space in public schools.

Hodges’ congregation, the Church of the Highlands, began meeting in 2001 in a local high school auditorium. It has since grown to become the biggest church in Alabama, with more than 20 campuses worshiping a mix of their own buildings and rented public spaces. Two of those sites had their leases with Birmingham public schools terminated June 9 following two weeks of controversy over Hodges’ social media activity, which was brought forward by a public school teacher.

The Church of the Highlands controversy represents the most high-profile dispute over churches meeting in public schools in recent years. But the religious bias against church plants has been around far longer, according to J. D. Payne, a church planting scholar at Samford University.

Religious freedom advocates argue that if public schools open their space to community organizations during off-hours, they cannot discriminate against churches—or other religious groups—just for being religious.

A years-long legal battle over New York City ban on worship in school buildings concluded in 2015, and cases continue to pop up around the country, often raising concern that using public space for religious services represents an endorsement of religion or a favor to religious groups since rental fees are often cheaper than for other buildings. A 2012 LifeWay survey found that two-thirds of adults approved of schools renting to churches and more than a quarter said rentals should be limited to non-religious groups.

“Some public places have pushed back on churches’ meeting in their facilities,” Payne said. It’s possible there will be “an uptick in bias and opposition to churches’ meeting in schools,” but it’s too early to tell whether there would be fallout for fellow church planters, many of whom are already out of their normal meeting spaces while schools are closed due to the coronavirus.

The Church of the Highlands has been a model for church planting and multisite church growth through the Association of Related Churches, a non-denominational network Hodges co-founded. The association trains pastors to start congregations in leased spaces like school auditoriums and movie theaters. Kairos Church Planting, a Churches of Christ church planting organization, estimated that half the congregations in its network met in public schools.

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Source: Christianity Today