Law Allows Public God with Limits

Article excerpt

Every Easter morning for the past decade, the sun rises over the pond at B-Y Park serenaded by the Trafford United Methodist Church choir.

On Sunday, an Orthodox priest from South Greensburg blessed the waters at Westmoreland County's Twin Lakes Park in Hempfield to mark the Feast of the Epiphany, a long tradition, according to Claude Petroy, director of county parks and recreation.

But in Irwin, borough council would not allow a church group to conduct an overnight camp at the municipal park this summer.

When government meets religion, just what is correct?

Irwin Council President Danyce Neal said borough leaders steer clear of permitting religious services at the park.

"We have allowed religious groups or churches to have barbecues or fundraisers there, but not services, because it is government property," she said.

Trafford has no problem permitting the Easter service, which is presented for council's approval every spring.

"No one has ever complained about it. As far as I know, there is no law against it," said Lisa Mallik, borough administrator.

Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund, a group of 1,100 attorneys from across the nation who "defend the right to hear and speak the truth through strategy, training, funding and litigation," said Irwin officials unknowingly are violating the First Amendment by prohibiting religious groups from using their park.

"You cannot discount religious viewpoints. They made it clear they are anti-religious. It's actually a backward interpretation of the First Amendment," he said from his Louisiana office.

Irwin Solicitor Todd Turin said the borough does not restrict groups because they are religious. "The group sent a letter to council asking to sanction their actions at the park, which they would not do. But their general use of the park was not prohibited," he said.

Neal pointed to objections about nativity scenes at public buildings as a benchmark for the borough's position.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword, I guess. If we put up a nativity scene at the park, we'd have people complaining," she said.

Sara Rose, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Pittsburgh office, said parks are considered areas that would provide a public forum to express opinions or beliefs, including religious expression.

"You can't discriminate against religious expression because public parks are considered public forums. (Irwin council) can probably restrict the overnight use of the park," she said.

The same conflict surfaces with prayer before municipal meetings. …