Banned Sunday school resumes in Louisiana city park

Religious Liberty
by Aimee Stauf
Posted 7/15/13, 03:48 pm

A sidewalk Sunday school program for at-risk children will return to a Baton Rouge, La., park after the city abandoned plans to ban all religious groups from the public space. After the park commission adopted the ban, lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed suit on behalf of Voice of Mercy ministries (VOM), noting the rule was an unconstitutional breach of religious freedom.

Under previous policies, the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission barred religious activities from its parks. But it didn’t enforce the policy and permitted VOM to meet in Cadillac Street Park for five years. In March 2010, the commission told VOM it could no longer use the park because the group was too religious. Though prevented from hosting Sunday school in the park, VOM continued its work in the area, welcoming local mothers into its nearby facility for women struggling with substance abuse.

Since the park is a public place, the First Amendment explicitly protects the ministry’s right to operate an outreach there, the suit argued.

Joel Oster, the ADF lawyer who represented VOM, said lawyers settled the case in less than a year without extra penalties because the park commission amended its ban against religious groups: “After the lawsuit was filed, [park commission lawyers] then realized that the policy was unconstitutional and shouldn’t be applied and they amended their policy to allow equal access.”

Cadillac Street park provides a central location for VOM to meet with low-income families and children, many of whom live in the neighborhood surrounding the park. Before the ban, VOM’s Sunday school met every other Saturday and used drama, games, and Bible stories to “teach children the foundational principles of the Word of God,” according to the group’s website.

The ministry often hosted events like a Christmas outreach, a bicycle giveaway, and a free clothing drive, in addition to the Sunday school. It also served lunch and mentored kids in the neighborhood.

Oster said the group resumes Sunday school the first Saturday in August: “They are excited to be back in the park.”