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Metro Nashville Parks changes policy to allow religious groups to meet

By Nicole Young THE TENNESSEAN

When Cory Wigal was told he had to stop worshipping with other students and the homeless in a downtown Nashville park, he turned to an organization many see as an opponent of religious symbols on public lands. He went to the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee for help. Wigal, a Belmont University student, organized and began leading the “Church on Church Street” last September. His congregation, with about 25 members, met in the park across from the downtown library for worship services on Sunday mornings until March, when Metro police shut it down because it did not have a permit.

The Board of Parks and Recreation denied Wigal’s attempts to get a permit because of a policy prohibiting religious activity on a regular or permanent basis at any park within the city, he said. “I understand the government’s desire to enforce the law,” Wigal said. “But when the law infringes upon our personal right to speak our minds and our human longing to share our hearts, we cannot be silent.” About a month after the services were stopped, Wigal contacted the ACLU, which sent a demand letter to Metro Parks explaining that the policy was unconstitutional because it burdened the church’s rights to free speech and exercise of religion.

It was the first time the Tennessee chapter had ever become involved in such a case, said Hedy Weinberg, executive director. “I think sometimes folks don’t realize that we are a place to come to ensure that their religious freedoms are protected,” she said. “It is our job to ensure that the government is not inhibiting people from practicing their faiths, which was unfortunately what was happening here.” In the six months that followed the demand letter, ACLU attorneys met and negotiated with city officials in an attempt to change the policy and avoid litigation. Decision took time David Briley, an ACLU cooperating attorney, joined the talks in June. “Because the parks board only meets once per month, the process was slowed,” Briley said. “They weren’t necessarily opposed to change. They just wanted to make sure this protected the parks’ interest in providing recreation.” On Tuesday, the board approved a policy change that allows groups of 25 or fewer people to meet regularly in public parks without having to obtain a permit.

The new regulation also treats all users the same, religious and nonreligious. “We’re glad to get this situation resolved in a way that is fair and equitable for everyone, and I know that the board is happy with the resolution of the issue, as well,” said Jackie Jones, spokeswoman for Metro Parks. For Weinberg, the outcome was worth the wait. “We all sat down at the table in good faith to resolve this without litigation, and that’s what happened,” she said. “We were quite pleased with the board’s decision to protect religious freedom.” Wigal agreed. “I am so grateful for this peaceful resolution,” he said.

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Written by bsmietana

October 21, 2009 at 4:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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