Are you ready for another epic church versus state battle royale with the potential to set a national precedent?
Over this past weekend, Reality Church in Olympia, Washington, was hoping to host a simple barbecue and baptismal ceremony. In the end, the state government denied the church's request to hold the event at Heritage Park -- a public space (i.e. government owned) near the state's Capitol Campus.
Rather than utilizing the park's 260-acre man-made lake to conduct the water baptismal, Reality Church officials were planning to use a portable baptistery. Regardless, the state's Department of General Administration (GA) which handles special requests for park use, refused to grant the house of worship permission. As a result, the church is weighing its legal options following the government's claim that the intended use of the land would have violated the state's constitution.
In contrast, the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), led by attorney Jordan Sekulow, claims that the decision to deny access was morally and legally wrongheaded. In an interview with Fox News Radio, Sekulow said:
"They’re basically saying the barbecue is just fine – but...you can’t baptize anyone...So now you’ve got a state saying this is too much religious activity so it’s not really speech anymore. This violates the U.S. Constitution."
In explaining the reasoning behind the state's refusal, Steve Valandra, a government spokesman, told Fox News Radio the following:
"We approved their permit for the barbecue, but our state constitution does not allow public grounds or funds to be used for religious ceremonies so we got advice from our attorney general’s office and we denied their permit for the baptism."
Because a baptism is a form of religious worship and exercise, state officials believe that it stands in violation of the law. So, what does the Washington State Constitution say, exactly? According to Fox News, Article One reads:
“No public money shall be appropriated or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment.”
The regulations on religious displays and events are complex. Brad Shannon of The Olympian writes that the GA no longer allows any private religious displays to be shown inside of Capitol Campus buildings. To clarify, this includes any "indoor religious displays" that are not sponsored by the state of Washington.
This rule was instituted in December 2008 following debate surrounding various religious displays. The Bellingham Herald further explains these incidents, writing that the government "was caught in [a] church-state controversy over the display of atheist signs near a nativity and a menorah inside the Capitol." By issuing harsher regulations, the state may be hoping to avoid similar issues in the future.
However, Washington's restriction of this most recent event does seem, to a degree, contradictory considering past allowances. Shannon explains:
But GA has allowed other events that carried at least a patina of religious exercise, if not the appearance of worship, near the Capitol. One was a mid-July 2009 prayer rally near the campus’ Tivoli Fountain that drew Gov. Chris Gregoire, Auditor Brian Sontagg, a few legislators, and several hundred other participants.
Considering these facts, a court battle may actually lead to some clarity on exactly what is and is not considered acceptable behavior on government land. Currently, a final decision regarding next legal steps has yet to be made. Sekulow claims that the church will ultimately decide whether the case deserves its day in court. The end result holds the potential to set national precedent.
Despite Sekulow's belief that the church is correct in its assertion that the baptism should have been allowed, the state, too, believes it stands on firm constitutional -- and legal -- grounds.
(h/t Fox News)