Should a church in Madison, Wis., be allowed to proselytize in the Pheasant Branch Conservancy in the adjoining city of Middleton? The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state-church watchdog based in Madison, thinks not.
The city's Conservancy Lands Committee will discuss a request from Rev. Ted Krajewski of Calvary Gospel Church at its meeting in City Hall on Wednesday, May 22, at 7:30 p.m. Krajewski's letter says the church "is attempting to establish and grow an extension work in the Middleton/West Madison area. One way we can do this is by offering free home Bible Studies through Bible surveys."
The letter continues, "With your permission we would like to set up a small table near the kiosks within the Middleton Conservatory. ... The table would be manned by volunteers at all times to answer questions should any arise and to make sure that no waste was left behind."
Church members "would be there at random times throughout the warm weather months (April to October) and would not exceed more than six hours of time in any month so not to appears as a permanent fixture; thus discouraging people from using the area."
In FFRF's May 21 letter to the city committee, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott urged rejection of the request. "On its face, it is apparent that the 'survey' is really used for the purpose of recruiting church members and proselytizing. We are unaware of any other organizations that have been granted broad access to table at the conservancy, let alone for months at a time, as the church is requesting." [See the survey here.]
FFRF and its Middleton-area members are concerned that a promotional table will be a hindrance on park use by others, including people who may wish to visit the conservancy without being confronted by religious proselytizers or at a table near conservancy kiosks.
Elliott noted that the city's Conservancy Lands Plan 2011-16 specifies that "the lands are managed for passive recreation and conservation purposes pursuant to Wis. Stats. § 28.20."
Introducing competing uses, such as tabling by religious, political, nonprofit and other organizations, will open the conservancy to "unwanted and unnecessary competing uses that will spoil its quiet, tranquility and natural beauty," Elliott said. "The purpose of the conservancy is to provide for nature conservation and opportunities for hiking, bird watching, volunteer restoration and other passive recreation activities."
Elliott concluded, "A policy that disallows tables is a valid time, place, or manner restriction consistent with the First Amendment. It is noteworthy that there are numerous alternative channels of communication besides tabling in the conservancy, including tabling on private property or the rental of Middleton Park facilities. Individuals also retain the right to engage in speech activities that are otherwise consistent with conservancy use policies."