On Sunday, TheBlaze reported about the debate that is unfolding between the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), an atheist group based in Madison, Wisconsin, and Willow Springs Water Park, an amusement park in Little Rock, Arkansas. At the center of the dispute is a church group discount that non-believers claim is "illegal" and "discriminatory."
On Monday, TheBlaze spoke with David Ratliff, who owns Willow Springs and operates it with his wife, Lou Ann. While it was originally reported that the couple would be discontinuing their deal for faith groups -- a choice that was initially praised by the FFRF -- David said that this simply isn't the case. While the owners removed the discount from their web site while they sought legal advice, it was never ceased.
"We never stopped it. We just pulled it off the web site," David told TheBlaze. "In no uncertain terms, we are continuing this program, however Labor Day is the only Monday left [in the season]."
WILLOW SPRINGS RESPONDS TO ATHEISTS' CLAIMS
David recapped the events that unfolded and that have led Willow Springs to come under atheistic scrutiny, explaining that a non-religious, non-profit called ROCAN (Reaching Our Children and Neighborhoods) was looking to use the church discount (faith groups can enter the park for $5 per child on Mondays). When David and Lou Ann refused on the basis that ROCAN doesn't qualify, the FFRF was notified and the debate ensued.
The owners, who are Christians, initially started the religious discount to try and drum up business. But, it wasn't only for those who embrace religious beliefs, as individuals over the age of 50 and military members are also eligible. The idea to implement it, David says, was his wife Lu Ann's.
"This was originally started out as a market test to see if we could beef up our business on Mondays," David explained. "We chose these three different groups based on the need [and the] importance of military, the fact that people over 50 would bring other guests, [and the fact that, in the religious groups] people are generally well-behaved."
David went on to describe his passion for Willow Springs, explaining that he once worked there as a young man and that running the business is his joy in retirement. The park, which has been around since 1928, is something that he simply "loves doing." The owner also said that he and his wife have the opportunity through the business to "support a lot of underprivileged children."
The Ratliffs sponsor a Bible camp each year and they invite at-risk children to participate. The husband and wife also work with three inner-city groups, providing a free opportunity for the children they represent to play at the park free-of-charge each week. As for the church discount, while its structure may have evolved, it's really nothing new.
"We've always given discounts to churches. Up to now, it's never been questioned until this non-profit wanted to use this $5 thing," he continued.
When the park told ROCAN that the group would not be eligible for the religious discount, David claims that one of the men who runs the organization threatened him with a lawsuit.
After David and Lou Ann were told that Willow Springs was breaking the law, they sought legal advice to see if they are on shaky ground. As a result, the couple is confident that they are operating within bounds and they will, thus, continue to offer the discount throughout next month.
As for next season -- something that the FFRF expressed fear over -- David said that he and his wife haven't yet decided what they will do regarding the discount.
"We've got to sit down and look at it. We may want to put a little twist on it. We may want to do it in a different fashion," he explained. "But whether or not we do it will not be based on what the Freedom From Religion [Foundation says]."
David said that the family isn't planning to back down, claiming that experts and lawyers, alike, say that they are solid in their offering of the discount.
"The idea that they think they can bully everyone to do whatever they want -- they're going to come across someone who just doesn't want to be bullied," he said of the atheist group and its views on the matter. "If everybody stood their ground, they couldn't possibly attack organizations [the way they are]."
While he voiced a dislike for being at the center of the controversy, David was firm in his standing. "I have two partners: my wife -- and Jesus Christ," he said, maintaining that he would rely on them both for advice.
ROCAN FOUNDER HIGHLIGHTS HIS ROLE IN THE DEBATE
At the surface, the situation seems simple. But, the debate involves three parties, not two. And, to date, it's been unclear who -- ROCAN of the FFRF -- is pushing the allegations against Willow Springs.
In an interview with Leifel Jackson, founder of ROCAN, on Monday, cleared up some of these details.
Aside from maintaining that his group did, indeed, seek the discount, Jackson said that he never accused Willow Springs of being discriminatory. While someone form his staff may have contacted the FFRF, they did so to purportedly seek advice and to check the legality of the water park's policy. Jackson said that he thinks the situation is being co-opted and used to further politically-motivated views.
"To be totally honest with you, I think that a lot of this has been blown up [by] some people with some other agenda," he proclaimed. "I only asked a question -- why we weren't able to get the same kind of discount..."
Jackson said that he wanted the kids he represents to have "the same options that other kids have." He maintained that he has no ties to the FFRF. "I've never talked to the Freedom [From Religion Foundation]," he added.
As a result of the debate, Jackson said he has received threats. An individual touting "white power" and claiming that he's a KKK member purportedly called him with a cryptic message, as have numerous others who have dubbed him an "atheist," while also throwing racial slurs his way.
Jackson explained that he's not an atheist and that he was "baptized at an early age." He believes in Jesus and said that the Christian savior is "going to come back and deal with a lot of this crazy stuff."
Last week, on Facebook, the non-profit leader highlighted his opposition to the bickering and attacks that Willow Springs has received as well.
Hello my name is Leifel Jackson...the founded of ROCAN it is not my will to cause Mr Ratlff or his water park any harm...and ask anyone thats tied to ROCAN not to commet on this man water park page any more....many folks have a great time there and in this crazy World we all need that..God Bless you alll!!!!!!
While the FFRF seems to be jumping on the case (as noted, they sent a letter to Willow Springs earlier this month, urging the business not to reinstate the discount), Jackson said that he had avoided the group's legal push against the water park.
Considering these elements, it seems the FFRF is pushing this case, despite an unwillingness on the part of ROCAN to participate. Of course, there is the possibility that another staffer who works with Jackson is speaking and agreeing with the atheist group -- but Jackson didn't seem to believe that such communications are happening any longer.