Christian group challenges park-use regulations in New Jersey

Monday, November 2, 1998

Claiming an ordinance regulating park use in a New Jersey town inhibits speech and religious-liberty rights, a Christian group has asked a federal court to grant it an exemption.

Since 1994, the Rev. Edward Fernandez, pastor of River of Life Christian Center in Sayreville, had conducted “tent crusades” in Kennedy Park. The purpose of the crusades, according to Fernandez, was to gather with other members of the church and community for religious worship, prayer and evangelism.

Last April when Fernandez requested use of the park for a summer tent crusade, he was told by town officials that its ordinance regulating park use had been amended to require higher fees. The amended ordinance states that its intent is to “establish fees which shall reimburse [Sayreville] for the administrative charges and costs which are associated with permits, equipment, inspections or other such services” provided by the town. The ordinance's fee structure assessed a $200 daily fee, a $200 application fee and a $10,000 refundable insurance bond.

Shortly after learning of the new ordinance, Fernandez sent a letter to Sayreville officials decrying the rules as an impediment to the church's constitutional rights and demanding the church receive an exemption. Fernandez also objected to the ordinance's classifications, which lumped the tent crusades in the same category as carnivals and circuses.

In July, Park Supervisor Rich Standowski rejected Fernandez's request. Standowski denied the fees were unconstitutional, saying that “the daily fee includes the costs associated with the daily clean up and removal of trash and recyclable materials, and the labor for the same.”

Fernandez did not cancel the religious gathering, which took place from July 31 through August 9 at the park. The church paid more than $2,000 in fees.

In early October Fernandez and the church, represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a national religious-rights group, sued Sayreville in a federal district court in New Jersey, arguing the town should exempt the group from the ordinance and reimburse it for fees incurred for use of the park in July and August.

The ordinance “is not neutral nor generally applicable with regard to the use of Kennedy Park for religious 'tent gathering,'” the ACLJ argued in its suit. “The ordinance unconstitutionally inhibits religious tent meetings by charging unreasonable fees in order to engage in such religious activity. Tent gatherings have historically been used by religious groups to evangelize the community, worship God, and pray. The defendants' unreasonable fee ordinance interferes with Plaintiffs' sincerely held religious belief that they are called by God to 'preach the gospel' in a public setting.”

Robert McGowan, Sayreville's attorney, told the Home News Tribune that the town could not exempt the religious group without offending the First Amendment principle of separation of church and state.

“All other groups pay these fees,” McGowan said. “We would be showing preferential treatment if we were to waive the fees of a certain religious group.”

James J. Cerbone, an attorney with the ACLJ, said that not all other groups were paying fees.

“The only other entity that is being charged the fees is a carnival,” Cerbone said. He said free speech and exercise of religion should be given exceptions.

“The ordinance may be an attempt to squelch religious speech,” Cerbone said.