Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cross Purposes: Church, Park Officials at Odds

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Cross Purposes: Church, Park Officials at Odds

Article excerpt

It's 10 a.m. on a warm Sunday in October. Members of a small Bible church gather in a secluded area at a state park. It's a weekly ritual for the church without walls.

Surrounded by trees and chirping birds, six couples set up their lawn chairs in a picnic area and settle in for an hour of religious discussion. With them are their children and their Bibles.

For two years, the members of the Chapel of the Scripture have been holding their summer meetings in Mastodon State Historic Site in Imperial. Led by Pastor Dennis Rudanovich, the members talk about different parts of the Bible. Afterward, they fold up their lawn chairs and head for their cars. But on the morning of Oct. 6, the Chapel of the Scripture learned that it had violated the law. Park officials waited until the meeting ended, then told Rudanovich that the group needed a permit to meet in a state park. One Missouri statute requires that groups get a permit for religious activity in a park. Another requires a permit for any type of public assembly. But church members question state law. They say the statutes seem to contradict the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the right to assemble. After all, said Cheryl Griffin, a member from Moscow Mills, they were in a public place. Rudanovich said his group has no church building. In nice weather, they meet in the picnic area of the park, and when it gets cold, they meet at the home of a member. "We sit very much out of the way," he said. "I'm sure there are other things going on that are more mischievous. . . . We were pretty much hurt by the whole thing." Neal Trubowitz, Mastodon's park administrator, said all religious activities require prior permission. But Trubowitz said he routinely denies requests from religious groups because of the "need to separate church and state." He said that saying a prayer at the park is OK, but "meetings and assemblies and public gatherings of any kind have to be approved." He said park officials were unaware of the group's regular meetings until that day. To get permission, a group must submit a letter to Trubowitz. In some cases, Trubowitz said, he consults his supervisor. Trubowitz said he got his supervisor's support before approaching the Bible group. Trubowitz said he often bases his decisions on the nature of the activity. Group activities are permitted if they "keep with the mission of this facility, which is . . . to interpret the archaeological and paleontological remains that were found here," Trubowitz said. Mastodon, a 425-acre park near Interstate 55 in Imperial, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Missouri because of mastodon bones found there in the early 1800s. The Department of Natural Resources operates Mastodon. Sue Holst, a spokeswoman for the DNR, said the statutes are needed to keep control over the parks. …

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