Maryland investigates ballclub’s Church Bulletin Day promotion

Thursday, July 2, 1998

A minor league baseball club in Maryland refuses to stop giving ticket discounts to churchgoing fans despite suggestions by a state commission that the promotion amounts to religious discrimination in a public place.

The general manager of the Hagerstown Suns, a Toronto Blue Jays farm club, said that the Maryland Commission on Human Relations last week asked the club to voluntarily drop its “Church Bulletin Day” promotion. The promotion offers discounts to families that bring a religious bulletin or pamphlet from that week's religious service to Sunday home games.

The state commission enforces a law that bars “discrimination based on age, ancestry, color, familial status, marital status, mental and physical disability, national origin, race, religion, and sex in employment, public accommodations, housing and licensing.”

In April, the commission received a complaint from a ballpark patron that the promotion violated the state's law against religious discrimination in public accommodations. The complaint was filed by a Waynesboro, Pa., man who says he is an atheist.

Catherine Skaggs, a senior investigator with the commission, said that the anti-discrimination law includes a confidentiality provision that bars anyone with the commission from discussing a complaint.

Skaggs would not confirm whether the commission sent a letter to the Suns asking them to dump the promotion day, but did say “we are always making attempts to settle alleged complaints of discrimination and at some point there may have been an offer to the Hagerstown Suns to just stop the promotion.”

Skaggs said the Maryland law states that owners of public facilities cannot create privileges for patrons based upon any of the protected factors in the law, such as religion. She added that the Suns' promotion appears to be a privilege.

David Blenckstone, the Suns' general manager, said that the church-promotion day will continue.

“We did not institute the policy intending to discriminate against anyone and we don't feel we are discriminating,” Blenckstone said. “We are simply encouraging families to come to minor league baseball games.”

Blenckstone said the club ignored the commission's request to drop the promotion because it “would rather take the case before the commission's judge.”

He added that “we never felt the complaint had much validity and that it is frivolous,” but that now “we are forced to defend the policy against this claim.”

Skaggs said the investigation would continue and that if the Suns' policy were found to run afoul of the state law, a public hearing would be set before an administrative law judge.