SUNSET PARK — Grant Elementary School has a new tenant on Sundays: a church.
Last Sunday, 20 City of God church-goers attended a service at Grant Auditorium, according to Carey Upton, director of the Facility Use Department at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
The church will pay the district $15,000 this year and compensate personnel costs, he said. That cash will go to upgrade facilities throughout the district. It could be used to replace the 50 year old folding chairs in the Grant Auditorium, Upton said.
Several neighbors have complained about the district’s decision to issue permits to the church, claiming that it crowds the neighborhood and it infringes on the separation of church and state.
“We are concerned by the traffic, the noise violations, the influx of numerous people, and the parking,” said neighbor Judy Palnick. “We also all uniformly believe that our neighborhood and our children should not be assaulted by special interest groups of a religious nature at their local elementary school.”
The Daily Press reached out to City of God but did not hear back by presstime.
The Civic Center Act, a California education code, allows the use of facilities by community groups, Upton said.
“While the non-denominational City of God might not be as familiar as a good old Episcopal or Methodist church, the (district) would not be able deny the religious practices of Buddhists, Muslims, Satan worshippers or any religious sect provided the practice is not inconsistent with the use of the school facilities or grounds for school purposes or interferes with the regular conduct of school work,” he said in an e-mail to neighbors of the school.
The district cannot favor other speech over religious speech, he said, and if they denied City of God they would also have to deny the Girl Scouts or even the Parent Teacher Association from meeting at Grant.
Residents complained that the church hung a large banner on the door of the school. Upton’s staff saw this as well and he believes it violated the district’s procedures for temporary signage.
“While we have no jurisdiction over what the user group does in the neighborhood or public streets, we will work with the user group to correct this,” he said.
Upton plans to meet with both the church and the neighbors this week to sort out issues.
Palnick asked Upton to put a hold on the permits until the community’s voice can be heard. She plans to take the issue up with state officials, including the governor.
Public displays of religiosity were an issue in 2012 when City Council voted to ban winter displays in Palisades Park. Nativity scenes lined the park during the Christmas season for decades until 2011 when a group of atheists flooded the lottery system and won most of the slots, forcing religious groups to scale back.