I guess I've always thought that the First Amendment of our Constitution prohibiting the establishment of or preference for a particular religion by our government would result in a physical separation of church and state. 

Thus, I really find myself having a problem with the City's recent decision to sign an 18-month lease with a Silver Spring Baptist church which will perform Sunday services in the auditorium where City Council meetings are held.  I'm just being honest in saying that it makes me uncomfortable and I cannot help thinking of what it would like if, in small communities across America, city hall after city hall were occupied by religious services every Sunday.   

Let me provide more details....

Our City Hall  - the municipal building on Maple Avenue - includes many spaces that are used by the community including the library, art rooms, meeting rooms, the auditorium where City Council meets, a teen room, a game room and so on. 
Some events are one-time performances or talks.  Other times rooms are reserved for months on end. Sometimes reservations are made without fees and at other times the city charges fees for the use of rooms.  The process to secure use of rooms is managed by staff, not Council, although we occasionally receive requests to support events.

A Baptist church in Silver Spring needed a space in which to hold Sunday services (while their church is being rebuilt) and somehow made a connection with the city concerning the City Council auditorium.  Over many months, staff have been
discussing lease arrangements with the church.  I and the rest of Council learned about it almost by accident last month.  The lease would begin in December 2013 and continue for 18 months, with the possibility of a 6-month extension after that if the church's building still isn't ready for occupancy. 

The City will be opening the Municipal Building up early to accommodate the church and charge an hourly rate for the employee that opens the building and staffs the administrative desk as well as a second staff person who will stay in the auditorium. 
Presumably this means the employee will be present in the room with the religious services.  The church will be allowed to place small ('sandwich board') signs at the front and back of the building before and during services. 

My greater concerns about this lease are more process and 'Takoma first' issues
.  To my knowledge, there was no 'call for proposals' or other indication that city hall was available for lease for extended periods on any day, making Takoma Park groups aware that such an opportunity might exist.  I don't believe any Takoma Park churches - or other groups - had knowledge that such an option existed for them.  For example, I have difficulty finding any information on the city's website indicating I could rent a room for any period of time or lease one for months on end (our regulations indicate a shorter limit).  And in fact   And I don't believe we built our community center to provide service to non-Takoma Park organizations first, even if it does create a profit for the city government.  I don't doubt that our City staff have been following our regulations and ordinances in moving through this process, but I somehow doubt when people developed City Regulation 2011-11 they were thinking of an 18 month rental to a non-Takoma Park church.   

On the separation of church and state issue, I know there is a balance between the protection of free speech, equal treatment protections and the Establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.  For me, its very difficult to see whether we are getting the balance right with this issue.  It looks as though federal courts have issued different opinions on the use of public facilities for religious services and the Constitutionality of those arrangements, but I'm not aware of any of those cases involving the very building and room where local government convenes.  I've talked to Constitutional law experts and religious leaders about this whole set of issues.  I worry that this lease leaves us in the position of having to defend ourselves on perhaps precedent setting (and costly) litigation. 
And I wish we were not taking on that risk. 

I'd really welcome your thoughts.  At this point the lease has been moved forward by the City Manager and its completely within his power to do so.  But I do wonder if we want to make any changes in our facilities rental policies and would welcome your input to bet




Joe E.
11/17/2013 2:17am

Would we provide the same access to other religions who want a similar lease? How would we decide between competing churches/synagogues/etc? Would we allow a Wiccan service? How about services from the Church of Satan? In order to be religiously neutral and avoid losing a constitutional challenge, we would need to provide equal treatment.

I also would be curious if we're excluding non-religious uses that typically occur at the same time, or is the auditorium almost always available during this time?

I guess that if we can answer the questions above, and if it's making the City money, thus reducing my taxes, I can't complain too much. :-)

11/20/2013 12:49pm

I'm with joe mostly on this. and a policy that can accommodate his questions is in order. I don't feel completely okay with the leasing action nor am i completely against it. the longterm nature seems most problematic. it's seems bit of a gray issue, which could have been brought up to council for clarity before signing lease. i don't believe (hopefully) that is exposes the city to too much legal risk - though maybe that is overly hopeful. or maybe we'll rent space to the Church of Satan soon.

Ron T.
11/18/2013 12:13pm

I don't see a First Amendment issue, so long as the City isn't playing favorites. But I agree that the policies for renting space don't seem to be as clear as they could be. If the Church got a "special deal" because they knew someone, that would be cause for concern.

I think whatever policy we do end up with, it should give preference to TP entities. Also an 18 month lease seems like a long time to tie up that space. I would suggest a shorter limit, so that other groups can have access as well.

11/19/2013 6:28pm

View Source
If you have not had a chance to read Colleen Clay's and Tim Males excellent comments on the Councils' bizarre idea to LEASE for 18 month + and option for 6 months more to a church you can see them below.

This is a sweetheart deal that I could not book. I book rooms for my girls scout troops for meeting and activities and I can only book at 3 months at a time. Why do they get a 2 YEAR DEAL.

Takoma Park has Seventh Day Adventist Churches. Remember that SDA is Saturday worship. It would be a perfect solution for this church to rent on Sunday. On off hours at another church or the Masonic hall. Or any other place. It would be a better deal for organizations that are chronically strapped for cash.

The community center is a starting point and a soft landing for our wonderful Takoma Park ideas and projects. From pottery to comic jam, we use the center to enrich our lives. I for one want to see programs and events in that space that are enriching to our community whether it is a demonstration on the joys of Quinoa or a 12 part series on Folk Songs about the Whisky Rebellion. That diversity is what makes us unique.

No amount of money is worth it.

A.J. Campbell
Ethan Allen Ave.

04/11/2014 3:18am

Thanks for the blog post.

11/17/2014 11:45am

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