Airports are unlikely to follow Orlando's lead in banning religious services at interfaith chapels

Key Points
  • Chapels and interfaith prayer spaces, many with full or part-time chaplains, are among the amenities offered by more than three dozen airports around the country.
  • Orlando International Airport recently halted organized religious services in its interfaith prayer spaces, citing increased passenger volume, space allocation and safety for the change.
  • Numerous other airports said they currently have no plans to follow Orlando's lead, including Boston Logan, St. Louis Lambert International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport, among others.
Source: Greater Orlando Aviation Authority

They're not as ubiquitous as cocktail bars and souvenir shops, but chapels and interfaith prayer spaces, many with full or part-time chaplains, are among the amenities offered by more than three dozen airports around the country.

Some prayer rooms occupy what has, over time, become prime real estate in pre- or post-security areas of airport terminals. Others are tucked away and may be hard to find on mezzanines, down back corridors or in baggage claim areas.

But a recent rise in violence at churches, mosques and synagogues prompted Orlando International Airport to rethink holding religious services at its interfaith chapel and reflection space, prompting some concern about whether other airports will make similar changes. 

In 1951, Boston Logan International Airport was the first U.S. airport to set aside dedicated space for prayer. "It was explicitly meant for people working at the airport. A neon light pointed to the chapel," said Wendy Cadge, an expert in contemporary American religion in "A Brief History of Airport Chapels."

Today Logan's appropriately named Our Lady of the Airways is located in the airport's public area. It seats 250, is open around-the-clock and offers mass daily for passengers, airport and airline employees and the general public.

At Orlando International Airport, an interfaith chapel with a Tree of Life stained glass window dates to the airport's 1981 opening. A second reflection space for prayer, with accommodations for Muslim travelers, was added in 2015, as part of a customer service enhancement project.

Both spaces are located post-security and for many years Catholic mass has been offered in the airport's chapel each Sunday morning and during holidays. But, citing increased passenger volume, space allocation and safety, the airport board recently revised its policies. Now, while ticketed passengers and employees are welcome to visit the prayer spaces anytime, organized religious services of any kind are not permitted.

"Every airport authority has to make the decisions that they think are the best for their environment and location," said Susan Schneider of the Interfaith Airport Chapels of Chicago, which offers religious services and passenger support services at both O'Hare and Chicago Midway airports. "If Orlando feels this is something they must do at this time, you have to trust the decision. You just hope it's the right decision."

Reverend Rodrick Burton, a pastor in St. Louis, is certain the authorities at Orlando International Airport have made the wrong decision.

"I believe Orlando's actions are stunning in their shortsightedness and in an effort to be politically correct or to misinterpret the constitutional right of freedom of religion," said Burton, who serves as president of the St. Louis Airport Interfaith Chaplaincy, an organization that has offered "prayer, religious services, spiritual guidance, empathetic listening" and other assistance at St. Louis Lambert International Airport for more than 33 years.

Meditation or "reflection" room at San Diego International Airport in 2014
Source: San Diego International Airport

"There's nothing sacred about those spaces if chaplains don't attend to them. Those chapels will become quiet rooms," he added.

CNBC polled about two dozen other airports around the country on the status of their interfaith spaces and organized religious services.

Airports in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Philadelphia, San Diego, Seattle and many other cities have chapels, quiet rooms, meditation spaces and/or reflection rooms that welcome travelers at all hours, but do not offer religious services. Pittsburgh International Airport opened its post-security interfaith chapel in 1992 when its current terminal opened; the quiet room at Philadelphia International Airport was created just last August.

In addition to the scheduled religious services offered at Boston Logan and St. Louis Lambert International Airport, airport chapels in Atlanta, Cleveland, San Francisco, Denver, Dallas, New York (John F. Kennedy International Airport) and a handful of other airports offer organized religious services. Airports that responded to CNBC's query say they currently have no plans to follow Orlando's lead in banning these services.

Meanwhile, back in Orlando, after some scrambling and, no doubt some prayers, there's now an alternative arrangement for those seeking to attend Sunday mass at the airport.

Instead of being offered in the post-security airport chapel, starting Sunday, mass will be held in the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport hotel, which is attached to the main terminal of the airport. The solution is being hailed as a godsend for the both travelers and the airport.

"Security and safety will always be a top priority at Orlando International," said Tom Draper, senior director of airport operations for the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, "By moving these activities to a larger and more private location, we are minimizing activity in secure areas while enhancing the guest experience for those traveling through the airport."

The world's best airport just got even better
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