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City event raises church-state issue

(March 20, 2014) Rarely, if ever, does the usual business of municipal government shoot straight to the heart of Western political philosophy.

But in one of those rare exceptions, an event approval at this week’s Ocean City Council meeting raised questions about the separation of church and state — or, more specifically, the separation of Springfest and tents.

The council voted Monday night to approve a request from Berlin Area Ministries United to host a sermon on the morning of Sunday, May 9, in one of the tents set up for Springfest, the annual city-organized craft and music fair that takes place that weekend.

The service is scheduled for 9 a.m., an hour before Springfest opens for the day.

The council voted to deny, however, a request to allow the BAMU’s praise band perform as the opening act for Sunday’s Springfest entertainment lineup immediately following the service, in exchange for the city waiving the $250 tent use fee.

“They would be under contract just like any other entertainer,” noted city Special Events Director Frank Miller. “We would not have to pay for that first hour’s entertainment by allowing them to use the pavilion and not having to pay a tent use fee.”

The request presented a fine line as to what would be considered endorsing a particular religion, with City Solicitor Guy Ayres cautioning against going forward with either element of the event.

“Springfest grounds, whether prior to the event or not, is clearly a municipally sponsored event,” Ayres advised the council. “Those tents are rented by the municipality, and you are staging a Christian service there that people of other faiths may find offensive.”

The council, however, had a somewhat more nuanced stance. While adding a Christian group to the official Springfest lineup was clearly verboten, allowing the group to use a taxpayer-funded tent, officials believed, was no different than the city granting free access of any other municipal facility to any other non-profit group, be they faith-based or not.

“The fact that we’d essentially be hiring a Christian group for Christian music … I get that [it’s a problem],” said Councilman Dennis Dare. “But letting them use the tent, what’s the difference between that and renting the convention center to various religious groups, as we often do?”

“They have the right to use any facility available around town, as any group could,” concurred Councilman Doug Cymek.

Much of the council’s determination was also based on timing — the service itself would be occurring before Springfest opened for the day, and thus would not be part of the government-run, taxpayer-funded festival.

A Christian concert as part of the event lineup, after the grounds had been opened to the public, was a different matter.

“I don’t have a problem with the service, because you go to the service at your own choice,” said Council Secretary Mary Knight. “I may have a problem with the music [during Springfest].”

“I think it’s obvious that this event would occur before Springfest and is separate from Springfest,” said Councilman Tony DeLuca.

Council voted to allow the pre-Springfest service, but not the music deal. The $250 tent fee will still be waived as a customary discount to non-profit groups, even though BAMU will not be providing music to the general public.

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