Request Denied Over Separation Of Church And State Issues

OCEAN CITY- A religious request before the Mayor and City Council left the officials torn before granting approval for a service to take place prior to the opening of Springfest, but denying the offer to open the town-sponsored event with a Christian band.

Before the Mayor and City Council this week was a request made by Berlin Area Ministers United for a Sunday Morning Church Service at Springfest to take place within the Entertainment Pavilion on Springfest grounds Sunday morning, May 10, from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., one hour prior to the opening of Springfest.

According to Director of Special Events Frank Miller, the request is a contemporary church service with live music and sermon produced and supported by several church organizations.

The total revenue to the Town of Ocean City is $350 generated from Private Event Fees. In exchange for the use of the Springfest infrastructure, the applicant offered to provide musical entertainment for Springfest on Sunday morning from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Miller explained there is two parts to the request.

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“The first part is the private event application for the church service itself to take place separate from Springfest utilizing the Spingfest tent,” Miller said. “The second part is the group’s praise band be our first set of music that would take place Sunday morning inside the entertainment pavilion as part of Springfest. That would be setup as an entertainment contract just like any other entertainer that comes to Springfest. What we have done here is open an opportunity to bring a deal in front of you that Springfest would not have to pay for that first hour of entertainment in exchange for allowing them to use the Springfest pavilion by waiving the $250 Space Usage Fee that would normally be associated with a private event.”

City Solicitor Guy Ayres interjected, in his opinion, the proposed private event violates the concept of separation of church and state.

“Springfest grounds, whether it is prior to the start of Springfest or not, is clearly a municipal-sponsored event. The municipal tents are rented out by the municipality, and you’re staging a Christian service there that people of other faiths may find offensive, and my recommendation to the Mayor and City Council is to deny the request,” Ayres said.

Miller argued the request is no different from other religious events the town allows at other town-owned locations such as the Caroline Street Comfort Station stage and Roland E. Powell Convention Center.

“The town is supportive of any and all religions that want to utilize municipal property but Springfest is a municipal event. It is different. The Caroline Street Comfort Station, any faith or all faiths can ask to be up there and the town can accommodate each and every faith that make a request because the town is not sponsoring it. Just because this is prior to Springfest opening and the town is not sponsoring it, the perception is that the town is because it is associated with Springfest, and that is where it crosses the line in my opinion,” Ayres said.

Councilman Doug Cymek made a motion to approve the private event request. Council Secretary Mary Knight questioned if the motion included the approval of Christian music opening Springfest on Sunday morning.

“I don’t have a problem with the service because you go into the service if you so choose, but with the music, people walking by don’t choose to hear that,” she said.

Cymek clarified the motion is to approve the church service on Springfest grounds from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., prior to the event opening. Projecting the offer to play music in place of paying the $250 Space Usage Fee, Cymek included in his motion to waive the fee due to the organization being non-profit.

The council voted 5-0 to approve the church service with council members Wayne Hartman and Matthew James absent.

Dare made a motion to deny the Christian music element of the request. The council voted 4-1 to deny the request with Cymek opposed.