Church sues N.Y. town claiming suppression of religious rights

Tuesday, November 23, 1999

A New York pastor has asked a federal court to force town officials to allow
his church to use part of town hall for worship services.

According to their complaint filed on Nov. 18 in federal court, Pastor John
Amandola and Romans Chapter Ten Ministries have been barred from using the
Babylon Town Hall Activity Center on Long Island for regular meetings and
worship services. Represented by the socially conservative American Center for
Law and Justice, the pastor and church claim the town is violating the
free-exercise rights of church members and subverting the establishment clause
by acting with hostility toward a religious group.

In early 1998, the church received permission from Babylon officials to use
the town hall for Sunday and Thursday worship services. However, after the
church announced in a local newspaper that town hall was its new location, James
Namely, the town's parks commissioner, contacted Amandola and said the church
would no longer be permitted to use the space. In a letter to Amandola last
March, Namley said town officials were concerned about maintaining a separation
of church and state.

The ACLJ argues in its complaint that Babylon Town Hall is a public forum
that has been open to Boy Scouts gatherings, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings,
dance classes and sporting events.

“Unless restrained by this court, defendants will continue their unbridled
discretion to enforce the policy in a discriminatory manner excluding certain
religious speech in an otherwise open forum, thereby suppressing plaintiffs'
rights,” the ACLJ argues in its 15-page complaint. “The only apparent purpose of
the prohibition, facially and as applied, is suppression and disparate treatment
of religious views, themes, subjects and speech.”

Additionally, the ACLJ argues that the church members' “sincerely-held
religious beliefs require them to communicate their faith to others in public
places,” and the town's actions are subverting their free-exercise rights.

A Babylon official said that
the town would not discuss pending litigation. Town spokesman Robert Clifford,
however, told Long Island's Newsday that, whatever the
outcome of the lawsuit, the town would “respect the court's decision.”

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a Long Island public school
district's policy that barred religious groups from after-hours use of school
property. The school district had defended its policy in part by arguing that
the separation of church and state barred the district from allowing religious
groups to use school facilities.

The high court in Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches School
District, however, ruled that when a school district allowed a
religious group access to school property on the same basis it allowed secular
groups that action posed no threat to the establishment clause.

“The District property had repeatedly been used by a wide variety of private
organizations,” Justice Byron White wrote for the majority. “Under these
circumstances, there would have been no realistic danger that the community
would think that the district was endorsing religion or any particular creed,
and any benefit to religion or to the church would have been no more than