By SHARON OTTERMAN
The biblical story of Noah’s Ark will be taught, without mention of who told Noah to build it. Challah, the Jewish bread eaten on the Sabbath, will be baked, but no blessings said over it. Some crucifixes will be removed, but others left hanging.
These are the kinds of church-state gymnastics that New York City and some religious schools are performing as Mayor Bill de Blasio expands government-funded prekindergarten. Because of inadequate public school capacity, the de Blasio administration has been urging religious schools and community organizations to consider hosting the added programs.
But the push is raising fresh questions for civil libertarians concerned about church-state issues, and for the schools themselves, which want to help the city and qualify for its roughly $10,000-per-student tuition payments while preserving some of the faith-based elements that attract their main clientele.
The concerns crystallized in a one-page document the city issued in May to religious schools weighing whether to host full-day prekindergarten classes. Rather than state simply, as other municipalities have, that all religious instruction is prohibited, the city’s guidelines say that religious texts may be taught if they are “presented objectively as part of a secular program of instruction.” Learning about one’s culture is permitted, city officials say, but religious instruction is not.
This provision has set off debates in the offices of many schools, particularly Orthodox yeshivas, about just what is permissible. Many students in these schools are from deeply religious homes where the line between the cultural and religious is not only blurred, but absent.
“Can you conduct a mock Passover Seder?” said Jeff Leb, of the Orthodox Union, a national Jewish organization. “Can you discuss the symbolism of the menorah for Hanukkah? Can you have a sukkah at the back of the school? Are these things cultural or religious?”
Asked these questions, city officials said that a mock Seder would not be allowed, because it is a religious ritual, though “social/historical educational elements” of the Seder, which celebrates Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, could be O.K.; that the symbolism of the menorah would “depend on the context”; and that “it would be permissible to teach that there is a custom to sit in a sukkah during a certain time period, but not to perform the ritual itself.”
Religious symbols are not permitted in areas used by city-funded prekindergarten students. A mezuza on a doorway would generally be allowed, but if it had a Jewish star on the outside, it would have to be evaluated in context: If it was small, it would probably be fine, said Maya Wiley, the counsel to the mayor who helped develop the guidelines.
City officials point out that there is nothing new about religious organizations’ housing publicly funded prekindergarten programs; Catholic schools and other faith-based organizations already host half-day versions. But those programs present fewer potential legal problems, because the schools can deliver secular education during one half of the day and religious instruction during the other, when parents, not the city, are paying.
The city is now asking those schools to consider converting their government-subsidized programs to a full day, or six hours 20 minutes, of secular instruction. Richard R. Buery Jr., the deputy mayor in charge of the prekindergarten expansion, said the shift was part of the mayor’s push “to create a single, unified, high-quality system.”
With Mr. de Blasio under pressure to meet his goal of offering 53,000 full-day seats by September — and more than 70,000 by next year — religious groups have some negotiating power. Orthodox Jewish schools, which now educate about 8,000 4-year-olds citywide, have already won some accommodations, such as the right to hold class on Sundays, and are pressing for others, including the ability to host a shorter, five-hour program, which would leave them more time for religious instruction.
Nationally, as of 2009, 31 states, including New York, allowed faith-based organizations to receive public prekindergarten funds, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Florida, for example, parents may send their 4-year-olds to prekindergarten programs that teach religion. New York strictly prohibits the spending of state funds on sectarian schools and the teaching of religious doctrine. Faith-based preschool providers are permitted only if they ensure that the public money they receive goes to secular programs that serve all children.
Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that she has already warned city officials that they have created a system “ripe for overstepping.”
Telling religious schools that religious texts may be used for cultural purposes in preschool “is disingenuous,” and is also likely to be illegal, she said. “You plan to tell a 4-year-old that Jesus, Moses or Muhammad is only in their books as a folk hero, and not as a religious leader? That’s kind of a ‘give me a break,’ ” she said.
Another guideline that could face a court challenge, Ms. Lieberman said, is the stipulation included in the one-page city document that says religious schools may give preference to applicants of the same religion or denomination when hiring prekindergarten teachers “to the extent permitted by law.”
Ms. Wiley, the counsel to the mayor, said such discrimination was allowed to give schools the right to hire teachers qualified to provide the religious instruction that is permissible outside the publicly funded hours.
At the Chabad Early Learning Center of northeast Queens, for example, teachers talk about Hanukkah during the public hours as a story of bravery and character, while also focusing on the scientific properties of water and oil. “They are timeless stories, so it is actually easy to find ways to embed the cultural aspect in learning,” said Rebecca Hillman, the preschool director. Outside those hours, the emphasis is on the holiday’s religious aspects.
Though there is no formal count, about 15 percent of the roughly 1,200 private providers accepted into the prekindergarten program as of July 30 appear to be faith-based schools. That includes at least 33 Catholic schools operated by the Archdiocese of New York.
Following city rules, “teachers can discuss the Catholic faith as long as it is embedded into an age-appropriate, multicultural curriculum unit where other religions are discussed as well,” said Timothy McNiff, the archdiocese’s school superintendent. City officials say crucifixes can remain in much of a school building, but must be taken out of public pre-k classrooms. Yet at St. Lucy’s in the Bronx, which will have six publicly funded pre-k classes, the principal, Jane Stefanini, said she had not yet been told to remove the symbols.
At the Dimitrios & Georgia Kaloidis Parochial School, a Greek Orthodox school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, children in the public half-day prekindergarten say they are “thankful” for their food, without mentioning God. Still, Greek culture and spirituality are infused into the school atmosphere, including through prayers that open assemblies. “It is here, it is evident, but we abide by the UPK rules,” the principal, Francesca Mannino, said.
Sophia Pappas, the early childhood education director for the city’s Education Department, said that the city was adding 30 new staff members to its existing team of 40 to ensure that schools follow the rules. There will be at least two site visits per year, and if a school is deemed to be veering into religious instruction, a “corrective action plan” will be formed, and the school may be dropped.
Ms. Pappas said that while none of the existing monitoring staff members spoke Yiddish, the primary language of instruction in many ultra-Orthodox Hasidic schools, they would employ interpreters as needed.
At Reform Jewish schools, the language is English, but the Union for Reform Judaism has been discouraging its synagogues from taking the government funds because of the difficulty of toeing the church-state divide.
“You just can’t separate out the religious piece,” said Cathy Rolland, the director of early childhood engagement for the organization. “We don’t teach Judaism; we weave Judaism into our work.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 5, 2014, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: De Blasio’s Prekindergarten Expansion Collides With Church-State Divide.