Tish James Defends KKK Access to Schools

[Subsequent to the publication of this story, both Councilwoman James and Andy Humm clarified the record and their views.]

City Councilwoman Letitia James, a Fort Greene-Crown Heights Democrat and supporter of religious groups holding worship services in public schools, said Thursday night that the Ku Klux Klan should also be allowed to meet in the schools.

“They are entitled to equal access,” she said.

James is one of the more progressive sponsors of a Council resolution calling for passage of a state bill to get the churches into the schools for worship services when schools are not in session and space is available. The bill passed the State Senate overwhelmingly, but Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has called the Senate version “overly broad,” explaining his chamber is working on some kind of compromise.

In response to concerns that turning public buildings into churches at nominal cost constitutes government subsidy of religion, James, on February 16, told Gay City News, “We already subsidize churches by making them exempt from taxes.”

When asked if she saw any difference between giving a church tax-exempt status and giving them government-owned space in which to meet, she said no.

James said she originally made the Klan comment earlier in this ongoing public debate when Manhattan Democratic Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, an opponent of worship services in public schools, warned that opening the schools to all groups would mean they would not be able to prevent the Klan and “pornography clubs” from meeting in the schools.

The legislation that cleared the Senate last week would override existing law that bars schools from being used for religious worship. A Bronx church congregation represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing litigation group that challenges marriage equality and other gay rights gains in court, won a ten-year injunction against the current law, but that statute was upheld by a federal appeals court last summer. On February 16, the district judge overruled by the appellate panel gave the congregation another ten-day injunction to make further argument.

James' remarks to me came in what turned into a heated debate between the two of us on the issue after a forum on police abuses in which we both were panelists at the LGBT Community Center. She said the Klan had the right to march in the streets, a point with which I agreed on civil liberties grounds. When the Klan last wanted to demonstrate in New York, I was called as a witness by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of their right to wear masks since I have covered many demonstrations where participants wore them. (The city's anti-mask law was upheld, but it is still not enforced on Halloween.) I told James that I was one of the 10,000 people demonstrating against the Klan action the next day.

I argued to her that there is a qualitative difference between allowing a demonstration –– an exercise of free speech –– and providing subsidized space in a building built to educate children. Even the Senate bill that troubles the Democratic Assembly speaker maintains the city requirement that outside groups that meet in schools be open to the public without discrimination, something the Klan would have a hard time stomaching.

Several of the churches that meet in the schools have already acknowledged that while anyone can attend their services, only those who ascribe to their particular God and do not “have a lifestyle contrary to the word of God” can become members of the congregations. Some congregations have avowedly anti-gay agendas and seek to convert LGBT people to heterosexuality.