November 09, 2006
By Bridget Levitz, Truth
ELKHART -- A clash over constitutional rights came to an end Wednesday when the Elkhart Park and Recreation Board changed its position on how religious groups can use city parks.
After a national civil liberties and rights group joined forces with a local church denied use of a park, the board called an executive session Wednesday to discuss the situation.
True Vine Tabernacle wanted to use Sycamore Street's Langle Park in July for an "evangelistic outreach," according to Conrad Hochstetler, event coordinator for the Mennonite-affiliated church. The church picked the area because it is "notorious for drug activity," he said.
But the board didn't feel the event was appropriate for a public setting where people go for recreation. The board was uncomfortable with the church proselytizing, or trying to convert residents, in city parks.
In October, the American Center for Law and Justice, based in Washington D.C., and True Vine Tabernacle let the city know a lawsuit was likely. The board met behind close doors Wednesday for almost an hour, pushing its scheduled public meeting back by a half an hour. City Attorney Larry Meteiver and Mayor Dave Miller sat in on the discussion.
"The board recognizes Mr. Conrad Hochstetler's constitutional privileges to use public space and parks for his religious purposes," board member Jackie Hughes read during the public meeting. "We recognize that and will act accordingly."
Hochstetler, who hadn't been informed of Wednesday's meeting, said the outcome was exactly what he expected. "I had no doubt in my mind," he said. "It's just too bad that it took so long."
Meteiver said following the meeting that he will draft a statement today to be sent to the church. "It won't be in the form of a resolution but it will be a statement acknowledging the things True VineTabernacle wants us to acknowledge," he said.
A letter from ACLJ asked that the board issue a written apology to Hochstetler and True Vine and provide assurances that the board had been schooled on the First Amendment.
Asked if the park board would allow True Vine to host its event in a city park, Meteiver said "most likely -- and anyone else (asking.)"
"That's what we wanted all along," Hochstetler said. "We wanted churches to have free access, as it should be. I hope all churches take advantage of this and that the gospel is spread."
Park Board member Bob Minichillo, who'd been the most vocal in his opposition to True Vine's use of the park, said Wednesday he was comfortable with the outcome. "We have to support the law," he said. "I have no objections to freedom of speech."
Minichello said it wasn't the church activities that he opposed, but whether they fit with the purpose of the city parks. He also wasn't comfortable with the park board endorsing the event, he said.
People now will have to be aware that religious activities will be happening in the parks, said Minichello.
Churches have always used park bandshells for musical performances and rented park pavilions for services, according to Park and Cultural Resources Director Bob Edel.
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