Victory Ends 53-Year Easter Violation (April 2000)

A threatened lawsuit by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and its Denver chapter ended a far greater taxpayer subsidy to religion than previously reported. Attorney Robert Tiernan, who directs the Denver chapter, had requested the same discounted rate for rent of a city facility as Denver has extended to the Colorado Council of Churches.

For 53 years, the Council has held an annual Christian sunrise service on Easter at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a natural amphitheatre on the outskirts of Denver, owned and operated by the city. For most of those years, the city permitted the Council to use Red Rocks for free. In the past few years, the city charged the Council only a flat rate of $2,000. Normal rental is $7,500 plus costs. TiernanÕs official letter of complaint about this preferential treatment for religion in April 1999 included a request for his chapter to rent Red Rocks this Easter at the $2,000 rate.

The city waited six months before denying his request. After Tiernan informed Denver officials that the national Foundation had authorized him to go to court, the city backed down, agreeing in December to charge the religious group the going rate of $7,500. However, Denver news stories in March revealed that the city subsidy was much more substantial, apparently including costly police protection, paramedics and other services. The Colorado Council of Churches, representing 12 member churches, announced in late February that it needs to raise $17,900 for the April 23 event.

This will cover labor costs including police officers for crowd control, stagehands, truck loaders and paramedics. The council said it will have to pay $4,450 for production, which includes sound system, organ and piano rental, honoraria, a coordinator, and $1,500 for parking attendants. The city is asking for rent up front this year.

Rev. Jim Ryan of the Council of Churches told the Denver Post that the development is positive: “Now it can be a widespread community event, instead of looking like a city-sponsored event.” About 10,000 people regularly attend the interdenominational prayer service. “Our victory was even bigger than we thought,” notes Tiernan.

Freedom From Religion Foundation