Lawsuit no longer in lineup for Suns

Tickets: Hagerstown's baseball team settles a bias complaint, and now fans can get a Sunday discount by showing any civic bulletin, not just one from a church.

January 12, 2000|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

Settling a long dispute that thrust God and civil liberties onto the sanctity of the baseball field, the minor league Hagerstown Suns settled a lawsuit yesterday with the American Civil Liberties Union over a promotion that granted ticket discounts to churchgoing fans.

Under the settlement, fans who push a church bulletin into a ticket window will still receive discounts to Sunday home games, but the promotion will be expanded to include discounts for fans bearing bulletins from civic or nonprofit groups.

The owner of the Suns, Winston Blenckstone, said he was caught in a squeeze play: His finances prevented him from continuing to test the law.

"We ran this thing as long as we could," he said. "It was good for us, the publicity was real good, and it's still a small-town promotion that's going to continue. But we couldn't afford financially to continue to fight."

That fight began on Easter 1998, when Carl Silverman, an agnostic from nearby Waynesboro, Pa., challenged a ticket-seller at the Suns' stadium.

In keeping with a promotion the Suns had offered for the previous five years, families were granted admission to the stadium for $6, a discount from the regular prices of $5 for adults and $3 for children. For baseball fans, the deal was a steal.

The catch was that, according to advertisements for the promotion, a family member had to present a church bulletin to get the discount.

The promotion was running as flawlessly as Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance. Then along came Silverman, sliding high with his spikes sharpened.

He told a Suns ticket-seller that he didn't have a church bulletin. The man in the booth said he would give him one. When Silverman declined, the ticket-seller said he was not eligible for a discount.

Then baseball in Hagerstown became less focused on umpires and more focused on judges.

Silverman, with the ACLU, sued the team, claiming the promotion was illegal. The case was working its way through the courts when the team, Silverman and the ACLU decided to call a truce yesterday.

"The program was discriminatory," said Dwight Sullivan, an ACLU attorney in Baltimore. "We think this is a victory for tolerance and a defeat for discrimination."

Minor league baseball is built on gimmicks, and the Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, have seen their attendance slump in recent years.

Only recently did Washington County approve funds to replace the decrepit home of the Suns, Hagerstown Municipal Stadium, and the team still has to wait to see if the legislature will grant it $6 million to push the project through.

The Suns had maintained that Church Bulletin Day, as it had become known, was an effort to get more fans into the seats and to promote family values.

Team officials argued that the promotion was not discriminatory because bulletins from all religious denominations were accepted.

Once Silverman filed suit, the issue rested with Maryland's public-accommodations law, which prohibits discrimination in public places based on religion, among other criteria.

The ACLU argued that charging higher ticket prices to agnostics or atheists was the same as discriminating against Catholics, Jews, blacks or whites.

In October, Administrative Law Judge Georgia Brady ruled that the Suns had not discriminated against Silverman because fans weren't required to bring church bulletins to the stadium to get the Church Bulletin Day discount. Ticket-sellers would provide the bulletins if the fans lacked them.

Silverman "was offered every advantage without regard to his creed," she wrote in her opinion.

The ACLU appealed to the Maryland Human Relations Commission.

Blenckstone said a separate ACLU lawsuit filed against the team in 1998 in U.S. District Court convinced him that it was time to settle on all fronts. That suit, which also challenged use of the church bulletins, had not had its day in federal court.

"When they put that federal lawsuit on us, they were asking that we not only be forced to drop the promotion, but they also wanted attorney fees should they be successful," he said. "As a small-businessman, that's a frightening thing to look forward to."

In pure minor-league baseball tradition, Blenckstone said he did not consider the settlement a defeat but an opportunity "to expand an already successful promotion."

Beginning with the first Sunday game of the coming season, on April 16 against the Greensboro Bats, the team will welcome church bulletins and bulletins from the 4-H Club, the Kiwanis Club, food kitchens and any other civic or nonprofit organization. The new promotion will be called Sunday Family Bulletin Day.

"It's a new year. We're expanding," Blenckstone said. "And we may expand to one of these days where you cut your hair off at the gate and get in free."

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