Sports policy on Sundays is rescinded

Morning use of fields was banned to reserve hours for worship

`Never intended to offend'

Many residents upset, said commissioners were discriminatory

May 12, 2000|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Faced with mounting criticism and charges of discrimination, the Carroll County commissioners rescinded yesterday a policy that had banned Sunday morning sports activities on public fields.

The commissioners said they instituted the policy to reserve those hours for worship.

When a letter to recreation councils asking them to adhere to the policy was made public, "the floodgates opened," said Richard Soisson, the county's deputy director of recreation.

The commissioners' office was besieged by telephone calls and e-mails, which overwhelmingly called for an end to the policy, officials said.

"There was a lot pressure and a lot of people upset and angry," said Commissioner Donald I. Dell. "With public hysteria building, two of us said rescinding was the right thing to do."

He and Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge decided yesterday to put an end to the edict. Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, the strongest proponent of the policy, was not part of the decision, her fellow commissioners said. Frazier could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"Rescinding was the appropriate thing to do," Gouge said. "We never intended to offend people, but, even with the best of intentions, we did."

Gouge said the commissioners might revisit the issue, but not until they receive a report from the 18 Recreation Council presidents who met last night.

"I want to see what they suggest," she said. "There seems to be lots of confusion on this issue. We need to withdraw and regroup."

Joe Bach, president of the Carroll County Area Recreation Councils, said the commissioners' "suggestion was fine, but to mandate it was wrong. Nobody wants to discourage anybody from going to church. But this was a bad decision, a ludicrous policy. Even church groups would not get to use the fields. Government should not interfere with religion."

The recreation councils were asked to refrain from scheduling events before 12: 30 p.m., by which time most Sunday morning services have ended. The commissioners also directed the recreation department to withhold field-use permits until after that time on Sundays.

"The whole idea was to allow people to go to church without missing their ball games," said Gouge.

Judy Baker, president of the Deer Park Recreation Council, said the choice of church or sports for children "has to be left to parents. Let them decide."

Glenn Edwards, president of the New Windsor Recreation Council, said he understood the commissioners' reasoning, but he questioned whether the policy could have been implemented. "These commissioners care for the moral values of our kids," Edwards said. "This may have been a step for that, but maybe the mechanics of it were not right."

A shortage of playing fields and the more than 32,000 adults and children who use them would have quickly created a scheduling nightmare if the policy had been implemented, recreation officials said. The policy would have affected the large tournaments that draw out-of-state teams, Special Olympics, make-up games, equestrian shows and senior recreation programs.

"There is no way to do a lot of these events if we start that late," said Ken Whalen of the Freedom Recreation Council, which serves the county's most populated area.

The commissioners faced a possible action by the American Civil Liberties Union, Gouge said.

"We probably should have checked with our attorney before we wrote this letter," she said. "I had calls from people asking how can government tell them how to live their lives and from a number of Jewish people who said we were not addressing their times."

Dell said he had reservations about the letter but decided to proceed with it in the interest of family values. He said he was disappointed in the reaction, particularly with those who said the policy discriminated against those who worship on different days and times, he said.

"This country was founded on freedom of religion," Dell said. "You can't tell people to go to church, and you can't tell them when to play ball."

A few compliments mingled with the criticisms, the commissioners said. "Some people thought we were really taking family values into our concerns," said Dell. "It just seems that people who go to church think everybody else should go, too."

Bach, whose four children participate in sports, said, "Sports can be a family event and a good way to give kids a foundation.

"This was a painful process, but we ended on a positive note," Bach said in a meeting with council leaders yesterday. "I commend the commissioners for making the right decision and rescinding."

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