Tish James Says KKK Comment Was Made ‘In Jest’

 Tish James Says KKK Comment Was Made In Jest

Tish James (Photo: NYC Council)

Last Friday, Gay City News reporter Andy Humm printed a column accusing Councilwoman and likely candidate for Public Advocate Tish James of defending “KKK access to schools.” The story was based on a testy exchange about the controversy over whether churches should be allowed to hold worship services in public schools when class is not in session that took place between Ms. James and Ms. Humm after a public forum on stop-and-frisk at the LGBT Community Center where both were speaking. Ms. James, who supports allowing religious organizations access to school buildings, gave her side of the story to The Politicker and clarified her position on the controversial issue.

“The comment was made in jest, and apparently, it was taken very seriously by a reporter who obviously was very disappointed in my position regarding allowing access to organizations of faith, who have used and want to continue to use public schools on days that schools are closed,” Ms. James said.

Mr. Humm’s story, which was subsequently picked up by other media outlets, quoted Ms. James as saying the Klan is “entitled to equal access.” Ms. James, who said she knows Mr. Humm, described her interaction with Mr. Humm as a conversation that devolved into a “shouting match” and said she made the remark in an attempt to end the argument:

“I respect him but, as I indicated to him then, and as I will state now, we agree to disagree and it should have been left at that. To continue to raise pointed questions and issues and distinctions in this particular area just raised the level of conversation to an argument and to a point where it was just a shouting match. Unfortunately, whenever it rises to the level of a shouting match nothing constructive could ever come out of it, and so what I attempted to do was really try to limit the conversation by just giving him, I guess, an answer that he wanted, but it was said in jest, most of the individuals who were around us at the time did not take my comment seriously. He indicated he was going to print it, I didn’t take him really seriously. I was tired at that point in time and I really just wanted to end the conversation. I wanted to end it on the point that we agree to disagree.”

In his column, Mr. Humm described his conversation with Ms. James as a “heated debate.” We witnessed the argument between the two, which lasted for over 20 minutes and 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.”

On February 12, Mayor Michael Bloomberg put a ban into effect barring churches from renting school buildings to hold services on Sundays, when the buildings are otherwise closed. Four days later, U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska issued a restraining order blocking the ban, but on February 21, a three-judge panel at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals narrowed Judge Preska’s order to only include a single church, the Bronx Household of Faith, which has been fighting a legal battle to have access to school buildings on Sundays for more than fifteen years.

Ms. James described the issue as a “delicate balance” and said she doesn’t support giving all organizations access to public school buildings.

“Obviously, we needed to change the statute to ensure that organizations that preach hate, such as the KKK, and organizations that appeal to the prurient interest, such as pornographic organizations would not be in a position to use our schools,” she said.

Ms. James said this could be solved through the creation of “a review board or perhaps some strict language.”

Critics of allowing religious organizations to rent space in school buildings argue many religions are anti-gay.

“Some great gay organizations are going to argue that some churches preach hate in their sermons and are not friendly to the LGBT community,” Ms. James said. “My point is and my position has always been an issue of access and providing some criteria so that organizations who are of a certain ilk would not be in a position to have access to our schools.”

Another criticism of the push to allow religious organizations to rent school space is that Jewish groups cannot take equal advantage of the policy, because Jewish Sabbath takes place on Saturdays and schools are only closed on Sundays. Ms. James rejected the idea that the push to allow religious groups to worship in schools is a “Christian movement.”

“When we marched over the bridge that day, what I noticed was that there were Jews, there were Christians, there were Muslims, there were blacks, whites, Asians, there was Latinos, there was everyone,” Ms. James said. “There are some mosques that use the schools and there are some Jewish organizations that use the schools as well.”

Ms. James also pointed out that religious groups are currently allowed access to school buildings for uses other than worship.

“It’s important for people to understand that houses of worship be, they Christian, Jewish or Muslim can use our schools currently, it’s the question of prayer,” Ms. James said. “They can use it to teach, they can use it to sing songs, they can use it to educate, but it’s the prayer aspect of it. … Some people want a complete ban and that’s what I oppose, because for me it’s an issue of access, allowing organizations to use it that do not preach hate and do not appeal to the prurient interest.”

Ms. James said she believes lawmakers in Albany are trying to work on a compromise to settle the issue.

“I think, and I’m not sure, at this time that the Speaker of the Assembly is trying to strike a compromise,” Ms. James said. “I do know that there is a liberal wing within the Assembly amongst the Democrats who are opposing this, who have taken a very strong position. Som I’m going to defer to the Assembly on this particular issue.”


  1. Anonymous says:

     Andy Humm here. Story is incorrect on some
    points and misleading on others.

    I never poked Council Member Tish James in
    the chest nor physically blocked her from leaving the LGBT Community Center.
    Tish James is a formidable person for whom I have a lot of respect. We certainly
    had a heated argument about the issue. She gives as good as she gets. I’ve
    discussed this with her and she confirmed that while it was heated and we got
    into each other’s faces and waved fingers, I did not poke her.

    Council Member James now tells me she was
    kidding about the Klan being able to meet in schools under “equal access.”
    I took Ms. James seriously because this was something that Council Member
    Lappin, an opponent of worship services in schools, said was possible under the
    State Senate bill that just passed to get around the court decision and get the
    worship services back in the schools. Now that she Ms. James she was jesting, I
    am happy to accept that. (At the risk of being misunderstood, Ms. James and I
    both acknowledged that even repulsive groups such as the Klan are entitled to
    1st Amendment Rights to demonstrate in the streets. But neither of us believes
    that they should have access to the schools.)

    This issue is not about “allowing
    religious organizations access to school buildings” as Walker says in his lead graf because they
    have had that for years. It is about regular worship services in school
    buildings, which the law prohibits. Also, the religious groups only got into
    the schools for worship services under an lengthy injunction and they lost
    their case. They were never permitted to hold such services under the law. One
    church, Bronx Household of Faith, got an inunction in 2001 and from 60 to 160
    more (estimates vary) gained access under that injunction.

    The Ninth Circuit is not permitting all
    160 to continue to monopolize Sunday morning space in schools under Judge
    Preska’s new order. Your story does not note that this was the same judge who
    granted the original injunction back in 2001 that got the churches into the
    schools for regular Sunday worship. That’s why the Second Circuit, which upheld
    the City law as constitutional–a decision that the United States Supreme Court
    declined to review–trimmed Judge Preska’s order back to the one church that is
    trying to raise new arguments that it did not raise in 16 years of failed
    litigation sponsored by the ultra-rightwing Alliance Defense Fund–sponsorship
    not referenced in this story.

    I do indeed take this issue very seriously
    as I do freedom of religion. I publicly condemned ACT UP’s disruption of a
    worship service in St. Patrick’s in 1989 to the consternation of allies in the
    AIDS and gay movements at the time. I have also demonstrated scores of times
    against the anti-gay bigotry of the Catholic Church among others which
    continues to this day. But I support the right of religious groups to teach
    what they want–just not on my dime. Government should not be providing what
    amounts to free space to religious groups for their core function–weekly
    worship services. Council Member James has spoken for herself in your article
    and believes that given all the other things that religious groups are allowed
    to use school buildings for, there should be no problem with regular worship
    services. The City disagrees and the federal courts upheld the City’s rule.

    I will be interested to see what kind of
    “compromise” the Assembly can come up with on this issue. The
    Senate’s version was criticized by Speaker Sheldon Silver as “overly
    broad” and constitutional scholars told the City Council’s Education
    Committee that opening the schools in this way would make it very hard to set
    the limits that Council Member James and others are seeking.

    My passion on this issue comes from a deep
    commitment to the separation of church and state, one that has served this
    country well and, if you have not noticed, is deteriorating by the day in
    legislatures across the country.