Church Allowed to Hold Easter Services in Park After PJI Intervenes
Ellicott City, MD – Calvary Chapel is gearing up for an outdoor community Easter celebration this Sunday in Ellicott City’s Centennial Park. But as worshipers reflect, youth sway with the band and kids romp in the children’s play area, most will likely be unaware that it almost didn’t happen – not for lack of interest, but because the County initially refused to allow the gathering on the basis of “separation of church and state.”
Dan Sexton, who pastors the church, sought permission from the Howard County Parks and Recreation Department nearly a year ahead of time to use the park for the Easter celebration. Since many other groups regularly utilized the park, it seemed like a simple matter of logistics. Instead, he found himself in the midst of legal wrangling, with the County insisting that it would not allow the church to use the park on the same basis as non-religious groups. The County would not even allow the pastor to submit an application.
Common sense told Pastor Sexton that the reaction by authorities was unjustified – and unjust. He called Pacific Justice Institute in California, which has represented dozens of Calvary Chapels, as well as countless other churches seeking to exercise their constitutional rights. Attorney Karen Milam, who heads PJI’s Southern California office, intervened on the church’s behalf. Ms. Milam contacted local authorities and explained in detail the church’s constitutional rights to equal treatment. After a few months of delays, the County finally reversed its stance and granted the church a permit to use the park.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty and misunderstanding among government officials with regard to the equal access rights of churches to traditional public forums,” explained Ms. Milam. “We applaud the Howard County Parks and Recreation Department for agreeing to bring its policies into compliance with federal law, and we hope that other park administrators will take the time to review their own policies to ensure that none of them unfairly discriminate against churches or other people of faith.”
Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute, added, “As more than a billion people around the world prepare to celebrate Easter, it is only fitting for all governments to allow the message of sacrifice and redemption to be proclaimed without interference or hindrance. Ultimately, this message has proven to be foundational for freedom and justice throughout much of the world.”