In Pensacola, the Grass Is Always Greener Where the Christians Aren't

Inside the Issues with Alan Sears

Alan Sears, Esquire
ADF President, CEO, & General Counsel

May 5, 2009
Picnicking seemed a harmless enough pastime to the members of St. Faustina Old Catholic Church and countless other groups and families in downtown Pensacola…especially in a park as quiet, pretty, and historic as Plaza Ferdinand VII.  The park has been designated as a public square in that city since 1764 and is a popular meeting place for all kinds of local activities.

Except, it seems, church picnics.  Pensacola police recently approached St. Faustina's pastor, Father Nathan Monk, and told him his church's Thursday night fellowships – which have been drawing between 20 and 30 members a week – would have to stop.  Father Monk, noticing other groups who seemed to be enjoying the park unhindered, asked why.

Because, one of the officers explained, the church picnics were attracting "undesirables" – homeless people the church members often invited to join them.  True, the policeman said, the picnics weren't hurting anyone, nobody had complained, and the church folk not only picked up their trash but went out of their way to pick up a lot of trash that wasn't theirs.  Nevertheless, the Plaza Ferdinand VII was now to be a "non-event" park.

If the church still insisted on its Thursday night picnics, he said, they could always try either of the other nearby parks – the one in the high-crime area under the overpass, or the one located by the sewage plant.

Finding those options untenable, and knowing that no local ordinances had ever prohibited picnicking in Plaza Ferdinand VII, Father Monk and his congregation enlisted the assistance of the Alliance Defense Fund. ADF attorneys sent the city of Pensacola a letter pointing out that a) other groups continued to meet in the park without police interference, which b) made the new "no picnicking" ban an act of discrimination against the church, and so, c) unconstitutional.

City officials, undeterred, explained that the ban was necessary to protect the park's grass – even though the police hadn't made any mention of that initially, which was perhaps because the church picnics were always held in a paved area accessed by paved walkways.

"Christian groups shouldn't be kicked out of public parks for engaging in peaceful activities related to their faith," said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Blomberg. "The police told the church it cannot hold picnics in this very public meeting place because it's a ‘non-event' park, but just one week earlier, more than 2,000 people showed up for an event at the exact same location. There are some serious inconsistencies here."

Faced with the officials' illogical and intransigent position, ADF has filed a federal lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida against the city of Pensacola on behalf of St. Faustina's.

"Church groups have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else in America," said ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt. "Sadly, because of the city's unconstitutional and unfounded refusal to allow the church access to the public park for its picnics, the fellowship and Bible study outreach to the community no longer take place at the park."

ADF-allied attorney Mark Welton of the Crestview law firm Welton & Williamson, LLC, is serving as local counsel in the case.  Please be in prayer for him and for all of our ADF attorneys as they represent groups and ministries that are encountering similar discrimination all over the country.

Please pray, too, for this brave pastor and his congregation as they seek out new ways to continue their outreach to the homeless and other lost souls on the streets of Pensacola.