Dan Bailey: Church overstepped on school property
FFRF Member Dan Bailey saw a state/church violation and decided to see if he could remedy the problem. Thanks, Dan!
By Dan Bailey
In October 2022, I noticed a sign hung from a public elementary school’s fence that read “Christian Faith Center Parking.” The school is across the street from a church by that name. I contacted the Bloomfield, N.J., school district superintendent’s office to inquire about the sign and why it was affixed to public property.
It seemed apparent that the church was using the school’s parking lot for its members’ use on Sunday mornings. Eventually, I was contacted by the school district’s lawyer and was told that the lot is available to the public on evenings and weekends when school is not in session. When I raised the issue of the church’s parking sign, the lawyer, Nicholas Dotoli, said he wasn’t aware of any signs, but would look into it.
I continued to watch the situation at the school and found that the gates surrounding the lot were locked every evening and on Saturdays, and the sign was only posted on Sundays. The only time the gates were open was on Sundays between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Dotoli sent a letter to the church telling it not to post its sign on the school fence. But nothing changed. I let Dotoli know that the sign was still up and he said he would make contact with the church pastor, which he did in person. After this visit, the sign was no longer placed on the fence, but the gate was still locked, except for Sunday mornings.
In January, I visited the school and noticed signage posted by the school district, which clearly states that the school grounds can only be used by special board permission. After consulting with FFRF Attorney Madeline Ziegler, I took her advice and filed a FOIA request with the Bloomfield School District seeking any communication between the district and the church relative to the use of school property.
But, before I could file my request, I had a face-to-face conversation with the church sextant on a Sunday morning. He told me that he had the key to the lock on the gate and it was his responsibility to open and close the gate on Sunday mornings. Apparently, the school district had given keys to the church staff. I augmented my FOIA request to include any information or communication about providing keys to district property to the Christian Faith Center. My request was honored, but the district did not find any communications, directives or information about this undocumented special use.
Interestingly, the Bloomfield School District declined to provide some responses based on an exception in the FOIA rules that allow them to withhold specific information if it relates to emergency plans, which is something the district lawyer alluded to in one of his responses. He said that the relationship between the school district and the church was part of the school district’s emergency response plan. I asked Dotoli to explain why a neighboring church would be given access to district property in the event of a school emergency, but he declined to answer.
In February, after persistent emails and phone calls to Dotoli, I received an email from him that said the school parking lot would not be restricted to church use, and that the church would no longer post signs or manage the gate. His research indicated that a prior school principal had entered into a casual agreement with the church which gave it special access in conflict with district rules. Dotoli said that school administrators at the elementary school were advised against entering into any unauthorized arrangement with any group or business.
The Christian Faith Center sits on two tax-exempt lots assessed for $1.3 million. If it paid all applicable property taxes, it would be approximately $44,000 per year. Parking is tough in most New Jersey towns, so I can see why they would want to leverage public resources to support their private, religious enterprise. It seems that they could use some of those annual savings to enter into a financial agreement with the school district and actually pay for the parking. But why pay if you can get it for free?
Of course, I will continue to monitor the situation.