Park-use fees too much for religious groups, federal judge says

Thursday, June 10, 1999

An evangelical group in New Jersey has won a legal victory against city officials who slapped large fees on it for using a public park for tent meetings.

Late last year, the Rev. Edward Fernandez, pastor of River of Life Christian Center in the borough of Sayerville, brought a federal lawsuit challenging an ordinance that required the church to pay more than $2,000 for a religious gathering that took place over several days in a public park. The charges included a $200 daily fee and a $200 application fee.

Represented by the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative religious law firm, the church argued in its complaint that the ordinance infringed on the church's right to free speech and free exercise of religion. “The ordinance unconstitutionally inhibits religious tent meetings by charging fees in order to engage in such religious activity,” the ACLJ argued.

On June 8, U.S. District Judge William H. Wall stated in a one-page order that the ordinance did impose excessive fees on religious groups and that Sayerville could not collect any fees from the church. Moreover, the judge's order requires borough officials to create a new ordinance that does not include unreasonable fees on speech and religious groups.

Vince McCarthy, a senior counsel for the ACLJ, said that the federal judge's order was “an important” victory for religious groups and the First Amendment.

“This is a clear message from the court,” McCarthy said in a prepared statement. “The court said that religious organizations, including churches, which are exercising free speech rights do not have to pay penalty fees to use a traditional public forum.”