Religion, baseball -- and civil rights Man wants Triple-A team to discontinue deal for churchgoers

May 16, 1998|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

A man who chased Gideon Bibles out of his local school district is pushing the Hagerstown baseball team to end a family discount for churchgoers, dragging the city into an uneasy debate over the freedom of -- and from -- religion.

Taking on God and minor-league baseball in one swipe has won the man few friends. "Most people I've talked to think it's just lunacy," said Hagerstown Mayor Robert Bruchey. "It doesn't make any sense."

However frivolous the debate might seem to some, legal experts say it turns on the important question of whether civil rights laws crafted to prevent discrimination based on race, gender or religion should extend to nonbelievers.

The battle will play out at the Maryland Human Relations Commission, the agency charged with upholding state civil rights laws on employment, housing and public accommodations.

The agency does not reveal any information about complaints. But the Hagerstown Suns, an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, released the one-page complaint filed last month by Carl H. Silverman of Waynesboro, Pa.

The team deleted his name from the copies it released to reporters, but several local sources confirm that he filed the complaint.

Silverman's 1996 battle against the Gideons angered many in Waynesboro, a small town just over the Pennsylvania border from Hagerstown.

No stranger to controversy

In a phone conversation this week, Silverman, 42, a stay-at-home father, declined to comment on the matter involving the Suns.

But in the fight over the Gideon Bibles, he made news by threatening to distribute rival literature to fifth-graders saying that "God is just pretend"

His newest crusade began Easter Sunday.

Silverman, team officials say, arrived that day with the intention of challenging the Suns' policy of allowing families with as many as six members into the ballpark's general admission seats for just $6 -- if they bring along a church bulletin.

Promotions a staple

Ticket promotions are a staple of minor league ballparks.

The Suns, a Single-A team, will let an entire Little League team in for $10 if they wear their uniforms. Regular coupons in the local paper also offer family discounts.

The deal for churchgoing families, team officials say, has been available for five years -- generating a few dozen takers each Sunday but no complaints -- until Silverman arrived.

"He came to our ballpark for one reason," said General Manager David Blenckstone, "and that's to cause trouble."

At the gate, Silverman asked for the discounted price. "I'm not religious," he said, according to his complaint, "so I don't have a ,, church bulletin."

When he did not receive the discount, he complained to team officials and later to the Humans Relations Commission.

The complaint, filed April 17, would likely have remained confidential for several months while the commission investigated. But team officials, sensing a public relations opportunity, announced it immediately.

They noted that the discounted price was only $2 less than the price Silverman -- who was not named -- ended up paying for his family.

Letters of support

Since then, team officials say they have received dozens of e-mails, letters and phone calls -- all supporting the church discount.

"If that was the sole means by which people got a discount, then I'd say yeah, it's blatant discrimination," said the Rev. David M. Buchenroth, president of the Washington County Council of Churches.

"But that's not the case. They have so many promotions."

Law may support complaint

Legal experts, however, say that Silverman has a point.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination at places of public accommodation based on race, color, national origin or religion.

State laws -- such as those the Maryland Human Relations Commission enforces -- echo that prohibition.

Courts have generally ruled that discrimination against nonbelievers is the same as discrimination against believers of a certain faith -- and both get the same protection, said David Bogen, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.

The Suns' discount does not require that families attend church, but requiring a church bulletin may have the same effect, he said. "It looks like a discount that favors religion, even though it's not direct."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a watchdog group in Madison, Wis., said the case is clear.

"Just as you cannot give [fans] a discount because they're white, you cannot give a discount because they bring a church bulletin," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, editor of the group's newspaper. "The civil rights act protects not just color but creed."

Legal remedies

TC The state Human Relations Commission generally works to settle cases before they become public. If no settlement is reached, it eventually holds a public hearing before an administrative law judge.

The result can be a fine of as much as $500 and an order to change a discriminatory policy.

Cases can also be appealed to Circuit Court and beyond.

If his fight turns into a protracted legal battle, Silverman may find help from the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which is considering taking up the cause, said Executive Director Susan Goering.

Suns officials plan no change in policy. In the several weeks since the complaint was filed, they have continued to offer the discount.

"We're not trying to encourage or discourage people from attending church," said Blenckstone, the general manager. "We're trying to encourage people to go to minor league baseball games."

Pub Date: 5/16/98

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