Sunday School Program at Park Once Banned for 'Religious Activities' Allowed Back

A Sunday school program for at-risk youth can resume meeting in a public park in East Baton Rouge, La., said a religious liberty law group on Friday after a ruling on a lawsuit it filed last year was made public.

Alliance Defending Freedom says the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission had thrown the program out due to a ban on religious activities. As part of a settlement of the lawsuit, the commission has now amended its policy to permit the school program.

"Faith-based groups have the same constitutionally protected freedom as any other community group to hold activities at a public park," said Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster. "We commend the commission for recognizing that such groups shouldn't be singled out for discrimination – especially a group like this that has provided such selfless service to at-risk youth and their parents for many years."

ADF stated that Voices of Mercy Outreach Ministries obtained permission from the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge to use Cadillac Street Park for its Sidewalk Sunday School ministry outreach in 2005. Five years after granting permission to use the park, the commission notified the ministry that its outreach events violated a policy that prohibits all religious use of parks the commission operates, even though the commission allowed at least one other religious group to hold an event at the park.

Voices of Mercy has not been permitted to use the park since March 2010 and has been frustrated from ministering to youth living in low-income communities surrounding Cadillac Street Park, according to ADF. The ban greatly diminished the ministry's outreach.

As a result of the settlement in O'Neal v. Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, the park commission has agreed to amend its Special Event Permit Policy and allow the group to meet at the park for four months without security and insurance and with the opportunity to reapply for a permit at the expiration of that time.

State and locally governed parks have been the scene of many legal battles in the last several years in which arguments have been made that public property should not host Christian events, displays, or evangelistic outreaches because of a First Amendment "separation of church and state" clause.

However, many who are opposed to such obstruction say that the First Amendment never intended to separate Christian principles from government. The First Amendment simply states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The words "separation," "church," or "state" are not found in the First Amendment and the phrase appears in no founding document.

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, nonprofit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.