Controversial churches used public schools to establish themselves in Boulder

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

Thursday, June 8, 2023
This article was originally published in Boulder Weekly

This is Part 2 of a series on Boulder-based evangelical church The Well. Read Part 1, about its relationship with Rayback Collective.

It was a walk that led Doug McKenna to The Well.

Strolling one evening near his North Boulder home, McKenna saw a sign, literally: “a sandwich board sign padlocked to a light pole,” he recalled, advertising worship services at nearby Foothills Elementary School.

McKenna wasn’t particularly religious, but he was curious as to how a government property could be used for religious purposes. So he attended.

Thus began years of research: attending and listening to sermons, contacting officials, filing open records requests. What McKenna found is common practice for schools all across the country. Among the dozens of clubs, sports teams and summer camps renting classrooms, auditoriums and athletics fields from Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) are faith organizations holding worship services.

Broad First Amendment protections mean the leasing program that is indispensable to so many community groups also allows churches with views antithetical to BVSD’s values to rent there, sometimes for years — including The Well, a controversial evangelical church that has drawn community ire for its beliefs about sexuality, gender and the role of religion in politics.

The availability and affordability of school spaces helps a wide array of organizations operate, proponents argue, not just churches. Critics remain concerned about how such relationships subsidize hateful rhetoric and blur the line between church and state.

As for the schools themselves, their hands are largely tied: If they want to rent to anyone in the community, they have to rent to everyone.

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‘The kids have no idea’

Like many districts, Boulder Valley maintains a community use program, in which residents, businesses and nonprofits can rent school facilities during non-school hours at low costs.

In fiscal year 2022-2023, more than 120 groups took advantage of the program (not including those affiliated with BVSD, like parent-teacher associations, or local governments). Nearly every one of BVSD’s 56 schools was rented out at least once — to day camps, dance troupes or private residents in need of overflow parking for parties.

For all this, the district will collect just $782,116.70, according to documents acquired via an open records request. BVSD charges between $10 and $44 per hour for classroom space, depending on who is renting it (private businesses and individuals pay more; student groups pay the least).

Price can be a factor in deciding to locate at a school, according to Matt Patrick, lead pastor of The Well. Schools also have many of the things churches need, like auditoriums and separate classrooms for Bible study or other sub-groups within a congregation, as well as ample parking.

“Finding space in Boulder is very difficult for a church that does not have a building,” Patrick wrote in response to emailed questions. “Our churches do not have much money, and paying staff a living wage in Boulder dramatically affects how much you can spend on a facility.”

For The Well, Casey Middle School was chosen “because of its central Boulder location,” Patrick said. The church rented there from April 2011 until mid-2020, when it moved to bar and food truck park Rayback Collective.

BVSD has developed policies specifically for religious use of its school facilities. Two conditions apply to “religious activities”:

1. Church services and religious activities must be conducted at times when school is not in session.

2. Religious objects and symbols must be removed after each use.

These rules are meant to keep churches, and other organizations, from soliciting students. The Well followed them, according to Patrick.

“Most of the time,” Patrick wrote, “the kids of the school have no idea that a church rents the space.”

Only two faith organizations currently lease space from BVSD, according to a review of records from the district: Adventure Rabbi, a monthly Hebrew school; and Pinewood Church, which occupied Casey Middle School after The Well moved to Rayback. (A third, Community United Church of Christ, rents a strip of land from Bear Creek Elementary for solar panels.)

A dozen other churches, including The Well, rented space from 2011 to 2019 — among them, Resurrection Church, whose targeting of college students and “cult-like” operations were profiled in the Daily Camera and CU Independent.

The Well recently found itself under scrutiny when McKenna penned a Daily Camera op-ed  calling the organization “a divisive, misogynistic and, potentially, LGBTQ-hate group.”

The Well defended itself against McKenna’s op-ed, telling Boulder Beat the church is simply teaching biblical principles. In their own printed response, pastors Patrick and Chase Davis wrote that they had been “taken out of context and falsely accused.”

McKenna, they wrote in the Daily Camera, “demeaned our congregation, encouraged intolerance of Bible believers and implied we should be denied the same opportunities to use public venues as all other community groups.”

“It is imperative that pastors hold the line,” Davis told right-wing media outlet The Daily Wire, “and that the pulpit function as a bulwark of truth in order to equip the church to stand fast.”

Allowed, but not endorsed

McKenna is not the first to question The Well’s occupancy of Casey Middle School. Parents and nearby residents voiced their concerns to school officials after Marty Combs, a deacon at The Well, publicly opposed Boulder’s 2018 assault weapons ban, according to an activist who supported the legislation. She spoke to Boulder Weekly on condition of anonymity.

Combs is now a church elder.

A selection of recent tweets Marty Combs, a leader within The Well that rented space at Casey Middle School.

As school officials wrote in response to McKenna’s open records request, The Well followed the terms of their lease and committed no offense that would result in a violation.

“They have paid their invoices on time, they have picked up or cleaned up things as instructed and have been really good tenants,” a communications specialist wrote in regard to The Well and two other churches named in McKenna’s query.

A handful of churches raised red flags for McKenna, who spent $150 to pull records from BVSD and hours attending worship services. He made note of teachings on homosexuality, politics and traditional gender roles — anything that fell under his label of “fundamentalist evangelical.”

What disturbs McKenna almost as much as what the church leaders say, is where they’re saying it. He opposes “the use of our public school properties for the use of religious indoctrination.”

“When [The Well was] at Casey, they would relabel Casey facilities as their own,” McKenna said. For example: “‘We’re going to have a food event at The Well cafeteria.’ It’s part of their strategy to bring their religion and point of view to the public square,” blurring the lines between government and religion.

McKenna timed the publication of his Camera op-ed to run just prior to The Well’s annual Easter egg hunt on Boulder’s historic downtown courthouse lawn on April 8.

The courthouse has been designated an historic LGBTQ landmark, as the first American government office to issue a same-sex marriage license in 1975. It’s an odd spot for a church which has repeatedly preached that marriage is between one man and one woman. But as a county spokesperson noted, the lawn is public space, and as such cannot discriminate based on religious views of parties who wish to utilize it.

“Any group may use the lawn or express their views there,” Gloria Handyside wrote in response to emailed questions, “including groups with viewpoints that are at odds with the views of the majority of county residents, the Boulder County government, or the county commissioners themselves.”

So, too, are BVSD’s values in conflict with those of many hardline Christians. The district has embraced its LGBTQ students, staff and faculty, supporting them with progressive policies — including detailed guidelines for non-gender conforming and transitioning individuals that ensure equal access.

Multiple Supreme Court rulings have upheld the right of religious institutions to rent school space specifically, striking down attempts to restrict such uses.

Officials for BVSD initially agreed to an interview, but rescinded the offer after Boulder Beat‘s first article on The Well published. A district spokesperson answered questions and sent the following statement via email:

“The Boulder Valley School District, like other school districts and governmental agencies that rent their facilities after hours, has established neutral access criteria for facility use. Public organizations are not permitted to discriminate against religious or political organizations that otherwise satisfy the criteria for facility use. We believe that the policy and practices in place in the Boulder Valley School District create a clear delineation between BVSD, its values and the values of its renters.”

One paragraph in the policy bears the weighty task of deflecting criticism from the district over thorny issues arising from its religious renters:

“Permission for use of District facilities does not constitute District endorsement of any organization, the beliefs of an organization or group, nor the expression of any opinion regarding the nomination, retention, election, or defeat of any candidate, nor the expression of any opinion as to the passage or defeat of any ballot issue.”

Photo by MChe Lee on Unsplash

Part of the neighborhood

The overlap of schools and churches has a long history, said Andrew Barnes, a professor at Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict.

Schools are the first thing built by overseas Christian missionaries; the buildings then double as churches on Sundays. And Sunday school — a staple of many Christian worship services — were started as a way to teach working-class children to read.

“If you can teach them just a little enough of how to read the gospel, then you improve their lives in some very basic ways as well as expose them to a higher form of Christianity than they’re exposed to at home,” Barnes said. “Schools have been understood as the No. 1 vehicle of Christian evangelization across the centuries.”

That seems to be even more pronounced in the West, according to Barnes. In Arizona, “I’m not going to say every elementary school has a church in it on the weekends, but if you go past a bunch of them, typically one out of two,” he said.

In the past few decades, evangelizing shifted (somewhat) away from foreign missions and into America’s secular urban centers, explained Samuel Boyd, a professor of religious studies and biblical texts at CU Boulder.

The Well and their successors at Casey are church planters, a term for establishing a new congregation. Some church planters believe in the concept of “incarnationalism,” Boyd said, which could also help explain their frequent use of schools.

“They say we want to look like the neighborhood where we are,” Boyd said. “They’d rather have a church enmeshed in your neighborhood, so the next time you have anything they can help out with, they’re already in the neighborhood.”

“Most church plants that I’m aware of are mostly trying to incarnate with their communities.”

Evangelicals don’t tend to think of public space as somehow being separate from religious space, according to Barnes.

“It’s impossible to think from the evangelical point of view of a space that is walled off from the gospel. The distinction between public and religion does not exist in that context.”

Open to all?

To the non-religious, that can feel like an affront to the separation of church and state, a Constitutional principle.

“Since public school districts often have the least expensive rental rates available in a community, rental to churches often involves what many of us consider taxpayer subsidy of congregations,” wrote The Freedom From Religion Foundation, in a treatise on church use of public schools.

“Start-up churches often take advantage of low school rental to establish themselves,” the foundation noted. “They obtain a prominent site for a new church, collect church donations on public property, and use their savings to eventually buy their own tax-free buildings.”

That schools are taxpayer funded is what keeps them open to all, said Rabbi Jamie Korngold. She rents space at Bear Creek Elementary for her monthly Hebrew school and occasionally at Summit Middle School for larger religious services through her synagogue, Adventure Rabbi. She calls herself “very passionate” about the program and the possibilities it presents.

“I love the idea, on so many different levels, that we’re using [facilities] when the schools aren’t using them,” Korngold said. “There’s so many wonderful reasons the community should be using these buildings.”

She has been renting from BVSD since her son was in preschool. He’s now in college.

“Renting a large building seemed ridiculous, because we don’t meet that often,” Korngold said. “We probably would find a way to do it without it, but it’s been really wonderful to us.”

Korngold acknowledges the confusion and hurt of residents, upset to see harmful messages about LGBTQ people and women emanating from what should be safe spaces for children. She challenges people to reconcile with the reality of what it means to keep community spaces truly open to all.

“If we’re open to everybody, if there’s space for everybody, if everyone should be able to believe what they want to believe … If you follow that out all the way, you also have to have space for people who are homophobic and people that hate Jews,” she said. “That’s everybody.

“To me, that’s the crux of the problem. Do we really want to be open to everybody?”

— Shay Castle

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