BATON ROUGE – Thanks to legal support from a religious rights advocacy group, a Sunday school ministry in Louisiana can once again hold events in a public park after being forced by officials in 2010 to stop the public meetings.
In 2005, after receiving permission from Baton Rouge’s Recreation and Park Commission, Voices of Mercy (VOM) ministries began regularly holding a “Sidewalk Sunday School” program in a city park, primarily as an outreach to at-risk youth. According to the ministry’s website, the Sunday School program “consists of dramas, object lessons, games, music, prizes and Bible stories all with one goal and that is to teach children the foundational principles of the Word of God.”
“Lunch is served at every Sidewalk Sunday School to anywhere from 20-100 kids twice a month,” the website further explains. “Our desire is to ‘Train up children in the way they should go so that when they are old they will not depart from it.’”
However, in 2010, park officials told VOM representatives that because their activities were religious, they violated park use policies. And so, for over three years, the ministry was unable to hold its public Sidewalk Sunday School program on park property.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)—a legal organization committed to protecting religious liberties—filed a lawsuit in May 2012 against Baton Rouge’s Recreation and Park Commission, asserting that the ban violated the basic constitutional rights of VOM participants and VOM’s director, James O’Neal.
“By prohibiting O’Neal and VOM from engaging in any religious activity in a public park,” the lawsuit states, “Defendants have violated Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion, as well as their Fourteenth Amendment rights of due process and equal protection of the laws. The policy is also hostile to religion and excessively entangles the Defendants with religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”
Furthermore, in a June 2012, press release, ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster argued that VOM’s activities were unfairly discriminated against because of their religious nature.
“Faith-based groups shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination—especially a group like this that has provided such selfless service to at-risk youth and their parents for many years,” Oster wrote. “The Sidewalk Sunday School program has the same constitutionally protected right as any other community group to hold its activities at a public park. There’s no constitutional basis to throw them out, and it’s a mystery why the commission would even want to do so in light of the valuable work this group does for the community.”
Finally, 13 months after filing the lawsuit, ADF announced this week that they successfully reached a settlement with the Baton Rouge Park Commission. In a Friday press release, ADF explained that park officials had amended their policies to accommodate religious events on park grounds. Therefore, VOM can resume its Sidewalk Sunday School programs.
“Faith-based groups have the same constitutionally protected freedom as any other community group to hold activities at a public park,” Oster explained in the release. “We commend the commission for recognizing that such groups shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination—especially a group like this that has provided such selfless service to at-risk youth and their parents for many years.”