Tish James: Worship in Schools Yes, Klan No

On February 17, I reported that Brooklyn Democratic City Councilwoman Tish James, a longtime and fervent supporter of LGBT rights, and I got into a heated debate over the controversy about religious groups being allowed to hold regular worship services in public schools, which she supports.

I wrote that, in response to my question about whether the Ku Klux Klan should also be allowed space in schools, she said they were entitled to “equal access.”

While I never implied that she could possibly support the Klan, I took her seriously on the access issue because it had been raised as a possibility by Councilwoman Jessica Lappin, an opponent of worship services in public schools who said, at a public hearing, that open access could lead to such extremes.

James assures me that she was kidding in her Klan comment and that those who know her understood that she was not serious about that group having such access. I accept her at her word. (To be clear –– we both acknowledged that the Klan, as repellant as it is, has the right to demonstrate in the streets under the First Amendment, and we have both been out there demonstrating against it when they exercise that right.)

In a story on the Politicker page of the New York Observer’s website about our confrontation, Hunter Walker reported that the argument between James and me “included Mr. Humm blocking Ms. James from leaving the area and pushing his finger into her chest as she repeatedly said, ‘Let’s agree to disagree.’”

Walker may have thought he saw that, but it did not happen. While she and I acknowledge getting in each other's faces and perhaps waving fingers at each other, neither of us recalls any physical contact.

“I do not recall you touching me,” James said. “I do recall your finger in my face and my finger in your face and it was heated.”

Despite the fact that both principals refute Walker’s description of what happened, he refuses to correct the record or report James’ account refuting it.

I did not nor could not engage in “blocking Ms. James from leaving the area.” There are five exits from the LGBT Community Center, in which we first spoke, and most of our argument took place on a public sidewalk outside, in any event. The Politicker blogger never called me for comment on the episode in preparing his post or since.

James added, “We should move on to other more serious issues such as homeless LGBT youth who are sleeping on subway grates in New York City.” Amen to that.

I continue to worry about how limits will be set fairly if legislative efforts in Albany are successful in end-running a federal court appellate decision from last year upholding the constitutionality of the city’s ban on worship services in public schools (though litigation on a second constitutional challenge to the ban continues). James and others, like Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Comptroller John Liu –– but unlike Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer –– believe there is a constitutional way to let the religious groups back in for weekly worship. We strongly disagree on whether that can be done, but we agree that the Klan has no place in a public school.