Carroll policy raising ruckus

Commissioners want Sunday mornings reserved for worship

Ban on athletic field permits

May 11, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll County commissioners have ordained it: No games on Sunday morning.

The commissioners have ordered the county's recreation department not to grant athletic field permits for Sunday morning activities, a policy that seeks to reserve those hours for family worship.

Reaction to the policy has been far from holy.

"It is not the commissioners' role to decree religious beliefs to individuals who participate in recreation council activities," said Joe Bach, president of the Carroll County Area Recreation Councils. "What message does this really send?

"What if the Girl Scouts want to go on a camping weekend at Hashawa? Are we going to tell them we can't rent Camp Hashawa out? What about a walkathon?"

Bach and other council members say the ban will create a scheduling nightmare for a county coping with a severe shortage of recreational fields and the more than 32,000 children and adults involved in athletic activities.

The policy means permits for activities on the nearly 100 fields in county parks and schools will not be issued for before 12:30 p.m., an hour when most Sunday morning church services have ended.

Recreation council leaders, who will discuss the edict at a meeting today, said weekend tournaments, equestrian shows and makeup games would be among the many events affected.

Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier said the commissioners used "community standard" in choosing Sunday mornings. That is the time of worship for the majority, she said.

"We are in no way targeting any religion," Frazier said. "We are just saying that as a government we don't want our facilities to compete with a family-oriented activity, in this case, worship. The faith community has a big part in strengthening the family."

Bach argued that the policy discriminates: "What about those who have religious beliefs that will not allow them to participate on Saturday? Are the commissioners saying their beliefs are not as important? When we're selective, we alienate other groups."

Frazier and her two fellow commissioners signed a letter asking the county's 18 recreation councils to delay athletic field use until 12:30 p.m. on Sundays. To strengthen their plan, officials also directed the county recreation department to withhold permits for Sunday morning activities.

Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge said that the letter calls for "volunteer measures left to the discretion of the recreation councils."

"We cannot dictate to people how they will live their lives," Gouge said.

The letter stated that "scheduling of recreational activities for the youths of Carroll County should be done in such a manner that these activities not conflict with families wishing to attend religious services of their choosing."

The Rev. Sterling Walsh Jr., assistant pastor at Westminster's Church of the Open Door, where Frazier is a member, said, "If we were doing our job, no one would want to go to the park on Sunday morning."

Walsh said he doesn't foresee widespread support for the policy. "Laws must represent the community as a whole," he said. "It hurts "This is something the commissioners should stay out of. ... They can't make everyone go to church."

Judy Baker, Deer Park Recreation Council president

me to say it, but I don't think the community as a whole will support this."

The Rev. Eric W. Jorgensen, pastor of St. Stephen's Reformed Episcopal Church in Eldersburg, sees the policy "as a simple acknowledgement that there are people who go to church. This is an accommodation for them."

But Judy Baker, president of the Deer Park Recreation Council, said, "This is something the commissioners should stay out of. They have no right to force this issue. They can't make everyone go to church."

Parents pay as much as $65 per child for programs that promise players a set number of games.

"We have a huge shortage of fields in Carroll County and heavy use of the ones we do have," Baker said. "We have to get games in."

The American Civil Liberties Union "is clearly troubled and looking into what we can do," said Suzanne Smith, the ACLU's legal program administrator.

"There is no secular reason for this decision," she said. "It is clearly designed not just to accommodate but to promote religious exercise. And, there is a clear preference for some religious exercises over others."

A permit guarantees field space; without it, a team takes its chances, said Richard Soisson, Carroll deputy director of parks and recreation.

"It is first come, first served," he said. "We need all the field time we can get, especially on weekends."

Most metropolitan Baltimore counties experience similar competition for field time and keep their recreational facilities open all day on Sundays. But on the Eastern Shore, Kent County bowed to a petition from church leaders two years ago and implemented a policy similar to Carroll's.

"We agreed to avoid conflicts, and we don't allow any youth programs until noon on Sunday," said Brad McLean, Kent County sports coordinator.

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