Persistence Pays Off over Violations at Hocking Hills State Park (October 2002)


A non-public service road, approximately 0.75 miles long, connects a state route with the state park campground. A parcel of land is owned by the Methodist Church approximately half a mile from the state route. Between the church property and the campground is the campers’ playground. On the boundary of the campground is a large wooden sign that reads “Campers Chapel,” at least 100 yards within state property. It appears that the chapel was created for the exclusive purpose of servicing the state campground.

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A volunteer at the Old Man’s Cave entrance station told us in May 2001 that the chapel was on private property owned and administered by the Methodist church out of The Plains, Ohio. She said the campground donated water and forwarded any problems or situations to the Methodist Council. The campground kept a key to the facility. The opening date for the chapel is Memorial Day Weekend each year.

Tammy and I attended services at Campers Chapel at 10am in early June 2001. Just prior to the beginning of the service, a rather obnoxious bell was rung which could be heard throughout the campground. As the outdoor amphitheatre was still wet from a recent rain, eight campers were invited into the cabin for the service. A woman explained that the Methodist church owned the property and that a variety of laypersons staff the chapel. The service lasted about an hour. Tammy and I kept a low profile while the service dragged on. While walking back through the campground, we observed flyers advertising the Sunday service at many of the campsites.

At the campground office, we asked a volunteer about the service road which was used by the church volunteers to get to the chapel. We were told that it was closed to public use and that a state park ranger would issue a ticket if a vehicle was caught using the road. This evidently did not apply to church personnel.

As we were chatting with the volunteer, a couple from the chapel stopped by to drop off the keys to the chapel. The volunteer said that the park kept the keys all week until the next Sunday service. She also said that park employees “watched over” the chapel facility and contacted the Methodist Council if there were any problems. Further, the park donated the water used by the chapel. Along the wall was a holder containing pamphlets printed by the Methodist church advertising the chapel. Along with a reproduction of the campground map were two Ohio State government emblems.

We also discovered that the large wooden map of the campground in the campground office prominently noted the Campers Chapel. The map of the campground also listed the Campers Chapel as well as the State Parks of Ohio website.
We next stopped at the ranger’s office where it was confirmed that the service road to the chapel was closed to public vehicles except for church volunteers.

Tammy sent an email to the Hocking Hills Park Manager, Steve Bennett, requesting a meeting to discuss our concerns. In late June, we reviewed with him the inappropriate if not illegal relationship between the state park and the Methodist church. Mr. Bennett agreed to review the complaint and get back to us. The meeting was very cordial. No timetable was set, however.

Tammy wrote a letter to Mr. Bennett thanking him for meeting with us and listing the points of discussion. She included some references to relevant court cases and citations from the Ohio State Constitution.

She received an email acknowledgment from Mr. Bennett saying that the distribution of religious flyers by church staff in the campground had been discontinued. He also promised to meet with an official at the Division of Parks.

After we had not heard anything for a couple of months, Tammy sent an email in September to Kim, a Division of Parks employee, listing the violations of state/church separation.

After nearly four months had passed with no answer to our concerns, Tammy sent another email making these requests:

• The removal of the chapel reference on the map contained within the website.

• The removal of the reference to the Campers Chapel on the paper map labeled “Old Man’s Cave Campground Map.”

• The removal of any references to the Campers Chapel.

• The secession of park personnel or park volunteers assuming custodial duties of the chapel facility, including the storage of chapel keys at the park.

• Halting the restriction of use of the township road to chapel personnel.

• The prohibition of chapel personnel from distributing religious literature on park property.

• The removal of the “Campers Chapel” sign located near the northern boundary of the campground.

In November, Tammy received an email from Ronald Kus, the Business Group Manager for the Division of Parks, saying he would be the person responsible for investigating our concerns and would respond in three weeks.

Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter that month to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in support of our efforts.

In December, Tammy received a letter from Mr. Kus, saying that he had met with members of the church who agreed to remedy all of our concerns. He stated, “Our position is that all groups and people are treated equally. We will not give one group any privilege or right that we do not afford others.”

The listing of the Campers Chapel on the Hocking Hills State Park website was removed by March 25, 2002.

In April, Tammy and David visited the campground again. The large map within the campground office still showed an arrow pointing to the Campers Chapel. In addition, the handout map of the campground underneath the glass at the outside self-register kiosk also had an arrow pointing to the Campers Chapel.

The wooden sign at the edge of the north side of the campground had been removed and was leaning against the outside of the main chapel building. There was no ground disturbance, which we would have expected to detect if utility work had recently been done to sever the water line from the park to the chapel. We took digital photos.

Tammy then sent an email to Mr. Kus which reviewed what had and what had not yet been accomplished, such as the waterline to the church not yet removed, the Campers Chapel sign across from site 141 not removed, and the Campers Chapel sign remaining on the property owned by the church.

“I still fear that a camper may not realize that the ‘Campers Chapel’ is private property owned by the church and may wrongly believe that the park endorses the Campers Chapel. I suggest that ODNR request that the words ‘Owned and Operated by the Athens District of the United Methodist Church–Established 1967’ be added to this sign to avoid any confusion as in the legal case summarized below.”

Ron Kus replied promptly, agreeing to all of our requests.

In May, David visited the campground. All references to the chapel on campground facilities had been removed. Although the same campground maps which listed the Campers Chapel were being used, every map had the corner cut off upon which the Campers Chapel notation was written.

Memorial Day weekend is the customary start of the church’s proselytizing season for the Campers Chapel. We visited the chapel on opening day and not only was there no service but another Campers Chapel sign that was legitimately on church property had been removed

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As we have no visible way of verifying that the water has been shut off to the chapel, it appears that we have won on all counts. We plan to periodically visit and poke around to make sure the church does not become entangled in that particular park again. Ohio has many fine parks, which we visit, and we are always watchful of any similar situations. We did notice, while on a trip through Pennsylvania last year, that there is a state park that apparently has a riverside chapel on state property. . . .

Freedom From Religion Foundation