Every Sunday, the cafeteria at Englewood’s Lincoln Elementary School gets a holy makeover.
Where lunch is usually served, a Christian rock singer belts out tunes about God’s “awesomeness.” Signs that say “Metro Church” hang outside the school. The resource room turns into a church nursery.
A half-mile away, members of True Vine Christian Center sing gospel hymns in Dwight Morrow High School’s auditorium. And next month, Korean Community Church will use classrooms in Englewood’s Cleveland School for Sunday services.
As churches with growing congregations face limited space and tough zoning requirements, some are renting space from an unlikely source: public schools. Wayne, Fort Lee and Englewood are among districts statewide that rent space to churches outside of school hours.
“We cannot build a gigantic building — the town won’t permit it,” said the Rev. Koo Yong Na, pastor of Korean Community Church, whose more than 1,000 members attend five different Sunday services. “We want to expand our reach, especially to the young people, and in that sense the school’s facility is very helpful.”
For school districts with tight budgets and state-mandated caps, the relationship can be beneficial as well. Wayne charges $30 to $60 an hour to rent an auditorium. Fort Lee gets $52,000 annually from a church that rents the high school. Englewood receives $800 a month from Metro Church.
A 1978 decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court allows religious services to be held in a public school provided they do not interfere with school functions or occur during school hours. The law requires school districts that rent space to give equal access to all groups, be they secular or religious.
Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists group, said that opening public schools to religious groups could mean the exclusion of less universally accepted ones, such as a Scientologist congregation or a mosque.
“There’s no such thing as equal access to groups they don’t approve of,” she said.
But most school district officials said they have rarely turned down requests for space rentals, and would not discriminate on the basis of doc-trine.
Others said that allowing religious groups to meet is part of accommodating taxpayers. Synagogues sometimes rent spaces in schools for spillover for High Holy Day services, and districts allow religious groups to meet on a temporary basis when their buildings are under construction, or in the case of a fire.
“The philosophy is: The community built the building, let the community use it,” said Fort Lee’s school board attorney, Robert Tessaro.
For Metro Church, a fledgling congregation that caters to a young demographic, buying a multimillion-dol- lar building in Bergen County isn’t an option yet. Renting an elementary school is.
It’s something that helps the Rev. Peter Ahn overlook the fact that he’s preaching in a cafeteria.
“Church is about gathering the people, it’s not about the space,” he said. “And the fact that it’s affordable really helps.”