The Freedom From Religion Foundation is looking into a constitutionally suspect arrangement that a California park has entered into with a local church.
A concerned local resident has informed the state/church watchdog about a long-term rental agreement between a church and the company that oversees Lake Gregory Regional Park, including the San Moritz Lodge, a public facility. Woodlands Church is reportedly receiving a favorable rate from Lake Gregory Community Recreation Company to rent the lodge, including reduced parking. Woodlands Church has apparently declared San Moritz Lodge its new permanent home, even listing the lodge’s address as its official address. And it has been given permission to install lights and displays during the Christmas season in the park.
The exclusive, long-term deal raises serious constitutional concerns and likely violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, FFRF asserts.
“Allowing Woodlands Church to make San Moritz Lodge its permanent place of business through a long-term use agreement to the exclusion of all other churches, religious organizations and/or other secular community groups or individuals who wish to use this public facility impermissibly advances religion,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes to San Bernardino County Regional Parks Director Beahta Davis. “This agreement demonstrates not only the county’s preference for religion over nonreligion, but also a favoritism of Christianity over all other faiths.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again, “The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the ‘First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,’” FFRF reminds the parks director. The permanent rental of a public facility to a church creates an appearance of government sponsorship of religion.
Another issue raising concerns is that Woodlands Church, which has indicated that it has no intention of finding permanent space on private property, is benefiting from a less expensive rent than is available to other entities or individuals. This amounts to a taxpayer subsidy and must be discontinued, FFRF contends. Taxpayers, under the federal and California Constitutions, should not be compelled to subsidize sectarian worship.
To further look into the matter, FFRF is asking for the following records, among others: all rental rate schedules and policies for rental of the San Moritz Lodge; any contracts or agreements between Woodlands Church and Lake Gregory Community Recreation Company or San Bernardino County Regional Park; and any other records concerning Woodlands Church and its relationship with Lake Gregory Community Recreation Company or San Bernardino County Regional Parks.
“The church-park coziness brings forth troubling constitutional questions,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “At the very least, it deserves further investigation.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 35,000 members and several chapters across the country, including nearly 5,000 members and a chapter in California. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.