By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
Some three years after members of a church in Wilson, N.C., were told they couldn’t hand out water in Jesus’ name at Fort Macon State Park, the state has changed its administrative code to allow park patrons their Constitutional rights. The change, the result of a federal lawsuit settled in the spring of 2009, took virtually a year to implement.
“Americans do have basic civil rights and we were well within those rights,” said the Rev. Tony Rivers, who was pastor at Grace Baptist and accompanied the church youth and a number of parent leaders on an Independence Day 2007 outing to Fort Macon where a park official threatened to cite them for giving out water.
“We were very surprised when we were told to stop. Here we were at a public park and we weren’t hurting people, just giving them water,” he said. “But because we were doing it in the name of Jesus, suddenly it was in violation of the rules and regulations.”
The idea to hand out the water was a spontaneous one on the part of youth who had just heard a devotion about what would happen if they lived their faith “out loud.” Pastor Rivers said teens began discussing what they could do immediately to share God’s love and decided to give away the chilled water they had brought for themselves.
“When recipients of the water asked why they were doing it, they would say ‘in the name of Jesus. He did something for me, so I want to do something for you,'” he explained.
When a Ranger intervened, Rivers said he was especially pleased with how church members reacted, continuing to conduct themselves in a Christ-like way.
“We were firm in our beliefs and told the Ranger that we respectfully disagreed,” he said. “We stopped what we were doing, but then followed through with the proper process, appealing to the law of the land.”
The park regulations, which had prohibited “any meeting, or exhibitions,” as well as “any ceremony,” or “any speech,” unless participants had purchased a $30 permit left it up to park Rangers to define the terms and apply the rule as they saw fit, a policy defended at first by the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, but revisited by the N.C. Attorney General’s Office after the church members filed suit with the help of Liberty Counsel, a public interest civil liberties law firm.
“Permits for speech are prior restraints on speech, and in most cases such restraints are unconstitutional,” said Liberty Counsel founder Mathew D. Staver in a release issued last year. “It makes no sense to require a single individual to obtain a license prior to speaking to another person in a public park. …Of all places, public parks are places where speech should flourish and where it has historically received the highest protection. … We are pleased with the resolution of this case.”
Liberty Counsel worked with the state attorney general’s office to formulate a rule revision that then wound its way through the months-long adoption process, becoming part of the state’s Administrative Code in May 2010.
The new rule begins with the affirmation that “public assemblies, meetings, gatherings, demonstrations, events, religious activities and other public expressions of views (hereinafter “event or activity”) protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, including the distribution of non-commercial printed matter, are allowed within State Parks …” and then goes on to give precise details as to when such activities would require a prior permit. It says groups of more than 20 people must seek a permit at least 14 days in advance of their event and that park officials may consider only certain issues (facility space, health, safety and welfare, etc.) of park users when they grant permits. Any permit denial must include a written explanation.
“We’re glad to see the state park rules are now consistent with the Constitution and thankful to these young people and their leaders at Grace Baptist who were willing to go to court to make it happen,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “There’s no way to know how many other folks may have been stopped from sharing their faith at state parks and simply accepted the rule and walked away.”
David M. Corry, senior legal counsel for Liberty Counsel, agreed.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what Constitutional protections they have and just go along with what they are told,” he told the CAL when the case was filed.
Rev. Rivers, now the Minister of Outreach for Angel Food Ministries in Eastern North Carolina, said Christians should feel a stronger call than ever to live out the Gospel in their everyday lives, whether at a park or buying groceries.
“When you go out, no strings attached and just love on people, the door for sharing opens up because of that,” he said. “God is always at work and always will be. … He hasn’t stopped, but sometimes we have.”