Godless Parks At Last, At Last by Roger Cleveland (August 1993)

Roger Cleveland, director of the Birmingham, Alabama Freethought Association, a Foundation chapter, was one of two victorious litigants named “1993 Freethinkers of the Year” at the sixteenth annual Freedom From Religion Foundation convention in Huntsville, October 22-24, 1993. Roger received a plaque and $500 to recognize his successful court settlement ridding Alabama State Parks of religion this year. Also recognized on the plaque were the co-plaintiffs who later joined his suit: the Alabama Freethought Association, Ro Ellis, and Hank Shiver. Below is his acceptance speech.

By Roger Cleveland

I first learned of the “chapel” in Cheaha State Park in May, 1989. The Daily Home printed an article by Juanita McDonald. There was a picture of the chapel with a caption that read “This beautiful octagonal stone ‘chapel’ is the newest facility at Cheaha State Park. Completed less than two years ago, the ‘chapel’ was designed to blend into the park’s natural wooded beauty. Services are conducted each Sunday by a guest minister.”

The Director of Alabama State Parks, Mr. Gary Leach, was quoted as saying “that no new facilities were scheduled for Cheaha Park this year. Limited funds and the necessity to spend so much on maintenance of existing facilities means no capital outlay for building additional facilities. There is a tremendous amount of maintenance that needs to be done. Maintenance of restaurant and overnight facilities has been neglected, not because of bad management, but for lack of money.”

I could not believe what I had just read. Out of one side of their mouths they were saying “they don’t have money for necessities” but out of the other, “they have just recently completed a new chapel”!

After reading the article I realized this was a violation of state/church separation. At this time I discussed this with family, friends, and others in the freethought community. I was encouraged to investigate the matter. And investigate we did! Alice Shiver and my wife, Pat, attended Sunday services at Cheaha’s chapel. They said they heard so much about Jesus, they started to look around the room to see if he was really there!

The date, May 16, 1989, was the beginning of numerous communications with Mr. Lindell Graham, Cheaha State Park Manager, Gary Leach, Director of Alabama State Parks, and Mr. I.D. Alexander, a local resident, and a member of the Tri-County Ministries, who coordinates chapel services.

Through these communications I learned that originally the building was to be an open air pavilion, with a fireplace in one end. But, with the help of Mr. Alexander and donations of $1,200 by local churches, they were able to install windows and doors. I also learned from Mr. Graham, Park Manager, that he personally was reserving the building on Sunday morning in order to hold these services. In a letter from Mr. Leach, Director of State Parks, he stated he was fully aware and supportive of Mr. Graham’s decisions.

We later learned from Hank and Alice Shiver that there was a chapel in Gulf Shores Park, near Mobile, where they were holding Sunday worship services, with a huge, wooden cross on the beach.

Later at one of our meetings in Birmingham, we learned from a member that there was a large cement cross at Lake Lurleen State Park, near Tuscaloosa. It was enough to make me wonder if the state of Alabama was becoming a theocracy.

The Alabama State Constitution, Article 1, Section 3, states: “that no religion shall be established by law; that no preference shall be given to any religious sect; society, denomination, or mode of worship; that no one shall be compelled by law to attend any place of worship; nor to pay any tithes, taxes or other rates for buildings or repairing any place of worship; or for maintaining any minister or ministry. . .”

We had also been communicating with the ACLU of Alabama. Thanks to the help of ACLU board member Sheldon Shafer, the ACLU board, and ACLU co-operating attorney Edward Still, we were able to file a complaint. As a result we were able to reach an out-of-court settlement with the state saying they would correct these violations.

I could read to you what agreements were reached, but it doesn’t really matter, since the state did not comply with any of them anyway!

We learned from our own observations, and from members across the state, that everything remained pretty much the same as it was before the complaint.

We contacted our attorney, Mr. Still, about the situation, and he asked us to send him any information we could, so he could also check into the matter. He also asked if there was anyone else that would like to join us as plaintiffs in this suit. Until this time this had been Roger Cleveland vs. Gary Leach, Alabama Department of Conservation, but now I would be joined by Ro Ellis, Hank Shiver, and the Alabama Freethought Association. Mr. Still filed our suit in the United States District Court, for the middle District of Alabama, Northern Division.

On January 28, 1993, after almost four years, we finally got a court order for the state parks to abide by the constitution.

The court order says in part;

1) The State will neither organize nor operate religious services in the state parks, but shall accommodate the religious practices of the public as set out in this decree.

2) If any map, brochure, or other information published by the State of Alabama, or any political subdivision or agency thereof, for the public use, refers to a building in a State Park as a “chapel,” the State of Alabama shall include a statement in such document that any such “chapel” is open for use by any group and subject to certain regulations. This shall be accomplished within ninety (90) days of the date of this order.

3) The State of Alabama shall not permit the permanent installation of any religious symbols on the grounds of any state park . . . within ninety (90) days of the date of this order, the state shall remove, or cause to be removed, the cross on the beach at Gulf Shores State Park and the cross on the grounds of Lake Lurleen State Park . . .

4) The State of Alabama shall not allow any group using a state park building or facility to leave on said premises, without use or attendance, any banners, decorations, or other items that may give the impression of state sponsorship of religion and/or dedication of the building or facility to a religious use.

5) Each state park building or facility open for public use shall be designated as a free use, or fee-for-use. If a fee is charged, there shall be no differentiation made between religious groups and other groups in the fee charged for such use . . . . The state shall make no distinction between religious and secular groups in enforcing this policy.

6) The State of Alabama may reserve state park buildings or facilities for use by individuals or groups on a first-come, first-serve basis . . . . The state shall make no distinction between religious and secular groups in enforcing this policy.

7) The state may allow a temporary erection of a sign by a user of a building or facility that gives notice of a meeting or other direction to said use. Said temporary sign or erection shall be done in conformity with otherwise reasonable rules and regulations of the State of Alabama in its state parks. The state shall make no distinction between religious and secular groups in enforcing any policy concerning the placement of signs on state property.

8) Except as otherwise provided, the above provision shall take effect immediately.

9) Not more than one hundred and five (105) days after the date of this order, the defendants will file with the court a report stating all actions they have taken to comply with the order. (We have received a copy of the state’s compliance report.)

10) The parties agree that a reasonable fee should be $5,500 and the court assesses a fee of $5,500 against the defendants for the work of the plaintiffs’ attorneys through the date of this settlement agreement and orders the defendants to pay said sum forthwith to the plaintiffs attorneys by check made payable to Edward Still. If any further proceedings are necessary, the court retains jurisdiction to assess a further fee award.

Godless parks at last, at last!

Freedom From Religion Foundation