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Sidewalk Sunday School kicked to the curb

ADF files suit after East Baton Rouge park commission’s ban on religious activities leaves at-risk youth program in the cold

BATON ROUGE, La. — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Thursday on behalf of a Sunday school program for at-risk youth thrown out of its public meeting place by the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission due to a ban on religious activities.

The program operated at a public park for five years but was kicked out due to the ban, even though the commission allowed at least one other religious group to hold an event at the park.

“Faith-based groups shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination--especially a group like this that has provided such selfless service to at-risk youth and their parents for many years,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster. “The Sidewalk Sunday School program has the same constitutionally protected right as any other community group to hold its activities at a public park. There’s no constitutional basis to throw them out, and it’s a mystery why the commission would even want to do so in light of the valuable work this group does for the community.”

Voices of Mercy Outreach Ministries obtained permission from the Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge to use Cadillac Street Park for its Sidewalk Sunday School ministry outreach in 2005. Five years after granting permission to use the park, the commission notified the ministry that its outreach events violated a policy that prohibits all religious use of parks the commission operates. The Park Use Policy states, “Under no circumstances can a public park be used for…religious…purposes.”

VOM has not been permitted to use the park since March 2010. This prevents the group from ministering to the youth living in the low-income communities surrounding Cadillac Street Park and has greatly diminished the ministry’s outreach.

In addition to allowing non-religious organizations to use the park, the commission has invited other religious organizations to participate in events at the parish’s parks, including inviting a local church to host a Community Outreach Day which included the distribution of religious literature.

Baton Rouge attorney Jay Simon, one of more than 2,100 attorneys in the ADF alliance, is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit, O’Neal v. Recreation and Park Commission for the Parish of East Baton Rouge, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. 

  • Pronunciation guide: Oster (OH’-stir), Simon (See-MOHN’)

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.


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