Beach church service restriction unconstitutional
This letter is in response to the City of Rehoboth’s town manager’s decision to bar New Covenant Presbyterian Church from holding a Sunday morning beach service.
Since our nation’s inception, the religious clause of the First Amendment has protected religious pluralism and prevented divisive and burdensome mandates of religion on the citizenry. In a public institution, it would clearly be wrongful to try to hold the religious views of one party over any other group of people. However, at the same time, it would be intrusive on the part of the government to limit or prohibit the free exercise of religion among the public.
It is the freedom of assembly and the freedom of religious practice that the City of Rehoboth seems to be denying the New Covenant Presbyterian Church by not granting permission to convene for a religious service at the beach. In order to support the right course of action in this issue, it is necessary to examine a constitutional precedent that pertains here.
In 2001, the Supreme Court, in Good News Club v. Milford Central School, ruled that a New York school board could not prohibit a Christian after school program from operating in a public elementary school. As the court’s summary makes note of, the school district determined that the request to use the school facility for singing religious songs, hearing Bible lessons, memorizing scripture and praying was a violation of the separation of church and state. However, since the program was optional for all the students in the Milford school, the court deemed that restricting the program would be a violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
The court also deemed it unconstitutional to render burdensome amounts of scrutiny on a religious club while other programs received none. The school would not have sponsored the optional program either, making an establishment clause defense for the school district not permissible. In summary, the Supreme Court decided that the club demonstrated “no realistic danger that the community would think that the district was endorsing religion.”
The City of Rehoboth has made an ambiguous and arbitrary declaration against the free exercise of religion and as the Good News case supports, religion can exist in the public sector when it does not burden any members of the public. As Robert Dekker, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church, has pointed out in an radio interview the religious services would be open to all members of the public and not require anyone in the public to attend.
Services would begin in the morning when beach attendance is lower than later in the day. It seems reasonable that the city might require an early start time, or that the service be held at a location away from the most crowded areas, but it would be wrongful of the city to restrict New Covenant Presbyterian Church or any other religious denomination from holding a service on the beach, while other organizations would not receive any scrutiny.
The beach is an awe-inspiring metaphor of God’s love for every human being on earth, regardless of faith. I commend Pastor Dekker and the New Covenant Presbyterian Church for being willing to undertake a creative method to hold religious services on Rehoboth Beach - something practiced by numerous other churches freely across our country. I hope the city will more closely consider the provisions of the First Amendment in allowing any faith group or club to assemble peacefully.