ACLU files lawsuit over discounts by Hagerstown Suns Admission cut for fans with church bulletins

December 24, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

The Hagerstown Suns minor-league baseball team will continue giving half-price admission to fans bringing church bulletins to the ballpark, team officials said Tuesday after being formally notified of a federal lawsuit.

"Just to give up and throw our hands up and back down would be a disservice not only to our industry but to all small businesses that run such promotions," said David Blenckstone, the team's general manager. "It also wouldn't be fair to our fans who enjoy the promotion year in and year out.

"Unfortunately, it could get a little costly here."

The American Civil Liberties Union notified the Suns Tuesday that it filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Baltimore seeking to prevent the promotion next season. The team has been offering the half-price seats on Sundays for the past five years.

The ACLU and the team have been at odds since August, when the civil rights organization joined atheist Carl Silverman to halt the promotion. Silverman, of Waynesboro, Pa., claimed he and his family were the victims of discrimination when they were charged full price for their seats on Easter Sunday while fans with the bulletins paid only half-price.

The Maryland Human Relations Commission issued an opinion in July that there was "probable cause" to believe the promotion violates state law and the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964.

A hearing before the commission is pending.

The federal lawsuit is a separate action. In addition to ending the promotion, the lawsuit seeks attorneys' fees.

ACLU attorney Dwight Sullivan said yesterday the lawsuit was filed after discussions with team officials failed to persuade them to drop the promotion.

"We're filing under the same act that says lunch counters shouldn't exclude blacks," he said. "It also prohibits public accommodations from discriminating based on religion, and ,X that's clearly what's happening in this case."

Suns officials say the promotion is not discriminatory because it does not require that fans attend church, only that they bring a church bulletin to the ballpark.

Such promotions are a staple of minor-league baseball, they say, and are needed to keep the team financially healthy. After the dispute over the bulletins became public in the last baseball season, the team held a promotional night that encouraged fans who were against the ACLU's efforts to attend a Suns game.

Sullivan said the lawsuit was filed Aug. 28, and the team was notified of it this week under federal court rules that allow 120 days for defendants to be notified.

Blenckstone questioned the timing of the notification.

"The initial complaint came from Easter; now we're served these papers three days before Christmas," he said. "It's a little ironic, considering we're dealing with an atheist."

Pub Date: 12/24/98

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