Worship Services Can Now Be Held In Public Park
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
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NASHVILLE, TN - Students from Belmont, MTSU and Tennessee Tech who hold church services with the homeless in a Metro park will be allowed to continue conducting services after the ACLU of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) successfully negotiated with the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation to revise a policy that unfairly blocked religious groups' regular use of park space. ACLU-TN commended the Board's Tuesday vote to change the language of its policy so that it will no longer prohibit regular religious speech in public parks.
"I understand the government's desire to enforce the law," said Cory Wigal, "Christ-committed" Belmont student and "Church on Church Street" leader, "but when the law infringes upon our personal right to speak our minds and our human longing to share our hearts, we cannot be silent. I am so grateful for this peaceful resolution."
Beginning in September 2008, Wigal and several other students were led to organize the "Church on Church Street" in the park located across from the downtown library. A mix of students and homeless people gathered to worship together in the public space on Sunday mornings until March 2009, when Metro police shut down the services because they did not have a permit. The Board of Parks and Recreation denied students' subsequent attempts to obtain a permit because of a board policy stating that "No park facility…may be used for a religious activity on a regular or permanent basis."
Frustrated in his attempts to obtain a permit, Wigal contacted the ACLU of Tennessee. On April 30, ACLU-TN sent a demand letter to the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation explaining that the Board's policy unconstitutionally burdened the church's rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
In an effort to avoid litigation, ACLU-TN spent months negotiating with the Board of Parks and Recreation to modify the policy so that it no longer infringed on the free exercise rights of people across the city who want to worship regularly in public spaces, using the parks in the same manner that other groups do. Ultimately the Board approved ACLU-TN-supported language that allows groups of 25 and fewer people to meet regularly in public parks without having to obtain a permit. The new language also makes the policy uniform for religious and non-religious groups alike.
"Nashville should always protect its residents' right to worship freely," said David Briley, ACLU-TN Cooperating Attorney. "The old Parks Department policy imposed unreasonable restrictions on our client's ability to hold church services for those in need and did little if anything to promote the goals of the Parks Department. This new policy will legitimately allow the Parks Department to provide recreational opportunities for Nashville without limiting the free exercise of religion. We thank the City and Parks Board for working to resolve this problem through negotiation."
In addition to Briley, ACLU-TN Staff Attorney Tricia Herzfeld negotiated with the Metro Board of Parks and Recreation and the city attorneys.