They arrive at Sickles High School just after sunrise on Sunday mornings. Pastor Hal Mayer and his team of volunteers carry sound equipment, draperies and Bibles into an empty auditorium. For two hours, they work to transform the room used for school productions and assemblies into Church at the Bay. ¶ Since its formation in 2005, the nondenominational Christian church has relied on schools as a meeting place, gathering first in Westchase at Davidsen Middle School and then moving to Sickles in Citrus Park when its congregation grew.
It's a practice that benefits both the churches and the school system, Hillsborough County schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. The churches get a low-cost place to meet. Individual schools get money to fund projects.
It's also controversial to some, a twist on mixing church and state. In New York City, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled that the practice risks violating the Constitution's ban on establishment of religion. As a result, churches meeting at city schools could be forced out.
In Hillsborough County, religious organizations receive the same treatment as any other group seeking available space. Churches pay modest fees, determined by the superintendent, for cafeterias, classrooms and front offices. On weekends, church members put up signs at schools in heavily populated communities in an attempt to draw members.
"We're a young church," said Neal McCullohs, connections pastor at Church at the Bay. "This way, all our focus can be on our message rather than the time, energy and money it takes to have our own building."
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Records show that five churches have contracts with Hillsborough schools. Most are nondenominational Christian congregations. All religious groups are welcome, Cobbe said.
Generally, rental agreements are made for one year. Some principals choose to make shorter arrangements. A church can use a space for a week or a month, as long as they adhere to the School Board's bylaws and policies for use of district facilities. For example, Davis Islands Baptist Church uses the fields at Ballast Point Elementary for special events such as picnics or concerts at a cost of $2,500 for 25 days of use.
Church at the Bay pays a little more than $1,000 per week to occupy Sickles' auditorium and the student services offices, which it uses for a children's church.
The fees cover electricity, custodial necessities and personnel costs. Anything left goes to the school itself, with the principal deciding where the money is best spent.
Jonathan Smith, an atheist and co-founder of Florida Citizens Science, said he doesn't see a problem with churches meeting at schools if they pay to use the space.
"As an unbeliever, sometimes I find it difficult to swallow," Smith said. "But if it's a fair contract and they haven't turned anybody else away, I don't see a problem with it."
Brian Hamilton-Grein, senior pastor of Family Harvest Worship Church, pays $1,579 a month to use the music room at Hunter's Green Elementary in New Tampa, where his daughters attend school.
Renting space gives the church time to grow without the fear of incurring debt, he said.
"A lot of churches fold in financial crisis because they try to move too fast," he said. "We are staying at Hunter's Green, where God has planted us, until he opens another door."
Still, churches moving in and out of schools is common, Cobbe said.
In eastern Hillsborough, Love First Christian Center is the fifth church to meet at Riverview High School since principal Bob Heilmann started working there 13 years ago.
Heilman said he likes easing the financial burden for budding congregations. He invites church members to participate in school events like Trick or Treat Street and Relay for Life.
"They are always nice groups of people," Heilmann said. "They meet here while they are saving for their first building. Then they move on."
St. Anne's Catholic Church used to meet at Riverview High. Now the church has a building in Ruskin. Northpointe Church met at Wharton High School in New Tampa before moving into its own place in Land O'Lakes. Westtown Church, which rents space at Farnell Middle School in northwest Hillsborough for about $800 a week, is raising money to purchase land in Tampa.
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Church at the Bay won't switch locations any time soon, McCullohs said.
The Sickles auditorium seats 880 people. About 400 currently attend services, so on Sunday mornings volunteers shrink the room with faux walls to make it more intimate. Members consider the setting ideal.
During teacher planning week, the church treated the Sickles faculty to a catered lunch. Members paint classrooms and clean lockers at the school as a way of giving back. They are extended family, McCullohs said.
"We aren't there trying to preach to people at the school; we just want to bless them," he said.
Cobbe said she has received no formal complaints against churches meeting at local schools.
"I got a call one time from someone saying there was a church sign in front of a school during the week and they needed to take the sign down, but that was the only thing."
Reach Sarah Whitman at (813) 661-2439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.