By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League of North Carolina
GREENVILLE – Ever gathered with a group of friends at a state park? Or perhaps you went alone, but struck up a conversation with a stranger who showed you how he taught his dog her latest trick. Careful, unless you both first obtained permits, you may have been in violation of the North Carolina Administrative Code, which prohibits “any meetings or exhibitions,” “any ceremony” or “any speech” inside state parks unless permission is granted in advance.
If you think that sounds like a bizarre rule that violates your constitutional rights, you’re right according to a federal lawsuit filed last week by members of Grace Baptist Church in Wilson against the North Carolina Division of Parks and Recreation, which threatened to cite church members for communicating with others at Fort Macon State Park without first obtaining a $30 permit.
The incident occurred during the 2007 Independence Day weekend when a group of youth from the church, along with some parents, adult leaders and the pastor went to the park for swimming, games, a picnic and a devotion time that inspired the group to offer bottled water to fellow park patrons in Jesus’ name.
“It was out of the devotional time that the idea was inspired … with the youth saying ‘Hey, we’ve got this water here, more than we need. Let’s go out and give it away,” explained David M. Corry, Senior Legal Counsel for Liberty Counsel, which is representing the church members, several of whom went out in pairs offering the water in Jesus’ name, consistent with Mark 9:41.
“The pastor told them if people just say thanks and that’s all, just to say thanks and move on. But if people wanted to engage in conversation, to be ready to share their story,” Corry explained.
According to group members’ sworn declarations filed in the case, their giving away the water did not result in “any anger, hostility, violence, or abuse from any of the willing recipients of the cold water, nor from anyone offered the water who declined it.”
Nonetheless, a park official threatened to cite the group if they did not stop their random acts of kindness.
“As we were freely giving water, Richard Crocker, a uniformed Park Ranger at Fort Macon State Park, approached me and informed me that neither I nor others with my group were permitted to offer others outside our group a drink of water or to approach others outside the group to engage in witnessing or other conversation,” wrote the Rev. William A. Rivers in his declaration, adding that the ranger explained that “providing cold water and approaching park visitors to converse, without a permit, was prohibited by park rule.”
According to information filed in the case, when the pastor asked for a copy of the rule, Crocker said his supervisor would fax a copy, after which the ranger gathered the names, addresses, Social Security numbers and birth dates from Rivers and several others in the group. The rule, faxed later that day, is Title 15A Section 12B.1105 of the North Carolina Administrative Code, which states: “A person shall not hold any meeting, or exhibitions, perform any ceremony, or make any speech, unless he has a permit.”
No written criteria or time limits for approving permit applications are given in the code. Neither does the code define the terms “meeting,” “ceremony” or “speech.”
“Application of this code provision to prohibit and punish the …. activities of Mr. Rivers and those youth with him is simply unconstitutional. Moreover, that code provision is unconstitutional on its face,” wrote Corry in an August 2007 letter to the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, asking them to stop enforcing the code and apologize for spoiling the youth group outing with unconstitutional demands.
In a legal memorandum filed with the case, he further described the “breathtaking reach” of the park rule, apparently part of the state’s Administrative Code since 1976.
“…On on its face, a family must first obtain a permit to meet in the park for lunch or to swim. A group of Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts must first apply and pay for a permit before singing or gathering for a nature walk or to make crafts in the park. Moreover, on its face, the Code applies to a pick-up game of football amongst co-workers, a play-date for a group of stay-at-home mothers and their toddlers, an individual or group circulating a petition for a political candidate or referendum, a news reporter interviewing park visitors for a story, and a myriad of other groups or individuals gathering in the park or speaking to fellow park patrons. The reach of Defendants’ Code extends to political lectures, campaigns, press
conferences, group discussions and meetings, and speech of any kind,” the memo states. “As evidenced by this incident, the Code actually applies to a group of individuals whose mission is to tell others about Jesus and offer a cold glass of water. All the foregoing examples are assemblies and speech protected under the First Amendment in the public fora.”
When Liberty Counsel – a nationally known non-profit litigation, education and policy organization – first contacted the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation, Corry pointed out that the state code, because of its vagueness and lack of objective standards, allows park rangers “unbridled discretion” to interpret the meaning of the rule and decide when or against whom it should be applied. He also reminded Division Director Lewis Ledford of the fact that parks are considered a public forum where we have the right, as Americans, to speak and assemble freely.
“Discussion of one’s faith and witnessing in a public park is clearly a constitutionally protected activity,” he wrote. “According to the U.S. Supreme Court, even a ‘loud’ and ‘boisterous … religious harangue’ is constitutionally protected speech, especially in a traditional public forum such as a public park…. The First Amendment protects a speaker’s right to advocate a cause with the most effective means the speaker believes will do so, including handing out drinks of cold water in Jesus’ name.”
Nonetheless, Ledford defended the park rule and the ranger’s subjective application of it. In a letter dated Oct. 1, 2007, he justified the permit requirement saying that it “allows park staff to effectively schedule events, maintain appropriate staffing levels and avoid user conflicts.” He did not answer Corry’s questions regarding whether families need a permit before meeting at the park or if a permit is required for park patrons to speak to one another about the news of the day.
The suit, filed in Greenville and immediately referred to mediation, accuses Ledford, Fort Macon State Park Superintendent Jody Merritt and Ranger Crocker, all in their official capacities, of violation of free speech rights, violation of the right to peaceable assembly and violation of free exercise of religion, all guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution. The plaintiffs also filed a motion for preliminary injunction asking the court to halt the enforcement of the park rule while the case is pending so that the church group and other potential park users could visit state parks and enjoy their rights without fear of citation or arrest.
“Plaintiffs now suffer a chilling and even outright denial of their rights to free speech and free assembly,” reads the motion. “… No money judgment can restore their lost opportunities to spread the love of Jesus Christ by providing water to others in His name.”
In addition to the Rev. Rivers, his wife, Jewell, and their 14-year-old daughter, Toni, plaintiffs in the complaint include Colby R. Pierce and Cindy Pierce and their daughter, Sarabeth Allcox, 12.
All declared in signed statements that they desire and intend to continue to use state parks to share their religious beliefs, but that the risk of state penalties for exercising their constitutional rights have kept them from doing so.
Corry said he does not yet know how frequently park rangers choose to apply the so called “Meetings and Exhibitions” rule or whether any such records are kept.
“It may be that every time someone tries to spread the Gospel that the rule is applied to stop them,” he said. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what Constitutional protections they have and just go along with what they are told.”
According to the most recent annual N.C. State Park attendance statistics available, as many as 13 million people used the parks in 2007.