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Senior citizens sue city over religious freedom

Posted: Friday, October 31, 2003

BALCH SPRINGS, Texas (AP) For years, senior citizens gathered at the Balch Springs Community Center on Monday mornings to enjoy a gray-haired gospel band known as ''Silver Threads'' and hear an inspirational message from the Rev. J.B. Barton.

Until a few weeks ago, nobody seemed to mind.

But then three residents said they were offended by religious activity at the city-owned center. So, officials in the Dallas suburb put a stop to it.

''The bottom line and the central issue was the fact that the city operates a public-funded community center, not a church,'' said David Berman, attorney for Balch Springs, a city of 19,000 southeast of Dallas.

The ban on gospel music, preaching and blessings before meals at the center drew an immediate backlash from senior citizens such as Marcelline Green, 75, who recently picketed outside City Hall with a sign that read ''Don't mess with Grandma. She's mad.''

''Our rights are being taken away from us,'' said Green, one of 16 plaintiffs in a civil rights lawsuit filed against the city in federal court. ''We are being discriminated against by the minority.''

In the 20-page lawsuit filed last month by the nonprofit Liberty Legal Institute, the plaintiffs argue that Balch Springs officials violated their constitutional rights of free speech and religious expression. They ''desire to engage in voluntary and non-disruptive religious speech and expression at the center,'' the petition states.

''Citizens don't lose their First Amendment rights because they are in public or in a public building,'' said Jeff Mateer, an attorney with Liberty Legal Institute, a Plano-based firm that handles religious freedom cases.

In response to complaints from seniors who like the religious programming, Balch Springs modified the ban. The city now allows voluntary prayer and gospel music to continue, but bars any minister from delivering ''a sermon, an inspirational or a devotional at the center.''

The compromise is spelled out in a two-page memo posted on the center's door. The memo states that the city must maintain ''the constitutional wall which prevents an intermingling of religious activities and local government.''

But allowing the music back without the preaching didn't satisfy everyone.

''I think they're trying to throw us a bone to see if we'll take the bone and run with it, but we're not,'' said Barney Clark, a 77-year-old World War II veteran who plays guitar for the Silver Threads.

''I fought for love of freedom and country,'' said Clark, a plaintiff along with his wife, Peggy. ''And here I've got old and useless, they say, and I ain't got no freedom no more.''

Barton, the preacher, says the seniors miss his sermons. ''I went up there the other day and the people were so sad,'' said Barton, a 73-year-old Balch Springs resident who is pastor of Wings of Deliverance Tabernacle in Dallas. ''I preach all the time anyway, but for the people, they really need it. It lifts them up and encourages them.''

But Pat Cook, 63, one of the seniors whose complaints led the city to ban the sermons, sees it differently.

While Cook could go in an adjoining room with pool tables and dominoes during the devotionals, she said she typically stays and listens to the preacher. She doesn't think she should be put in that position.

Although she is a Christian, Cook said she considers such religious expression inappropriate at a community center operated with public funds. Along with city money, the community center uses federal meal subsidies for the elderly.

''There is a separation of church and state in our constitution,'' said Cook, who started going to the center about a year and a half ago.

The city has not yet filed a formal response to the lawsuit, but Berman believes the town is on firm legal ground in banning the sermons. While he stresses that for now, ''the city has not made a decision to terminate all seniors' programs,'' it is not out of the question to imagine that Balch Springs could shut the center down rather than spend taxpayer dollars fighting the lawsuit.

Berman added that Balch Springs is not obliged to provide programs for seniors but does so voluntarily. ''The lawsuit,'' he said, ''is a slap in the face. The seniors are biting the hands that feed them.''

On the Net:

Liberty Legal Institute: www.libertylegal.org



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