DNR Backs Off on Battle

July 09, 2002

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has tossed out the policy that sparked a dispute over religious activities at Fort Custer Recreation Area this summer.

"This makes it clear that a state park is the same type of public forum for free speech as the courthouse steps," said James Rodbard, an attorney for the Southwest Michigan Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. "The people of Michigan should feel secure that they are free to exercise their rights of free speech and worship."

Rodbard represented the Rev. William Stein of Baptism USA Ministries in an effort to obtain permission from the DNR to baptize in Eagle Lake.

DNR officials at Fort Custer Recreation Area cited Parks and Recreation Policy 8.15 when on May 28 they denied a permit for the services at the park. But they did not interfere with baptisms Stein conducted there during the summer.

"In response to the situation, we independently reviewed the policy," said DNR spokesman Brad Wurfel. "The DNR is not about being obstructionist ... it's about fair and equitable use for all groups."

Rodbard on Sept. 12 discussed the policy with Stephen S. Schuesler, the state's assistant attorney general responsible for matters involving the Natural Resources and Environmental Quality Division.

In a letter sent to Schesler before the meeting, Rodbard outlined what he believed were the policy's unconstitutional aspects, including restrictions on soliciting, canvassing and proselytizing. Rodbard also said the policy advanced interdenominationalism, while discriminating against sectarian worship.

"The DNR clearly has the right and responsibility to ... enforce reasonable, content-neutral rules and regulations to protect the public, (but it can't) dictate the nature, extent or content of religious speech in the parks," Rodbard's letter said.

The DNR plans to use existing rules and policies to evaluate future events and activities at state parks.

By Claudia Linsley, The Enquirer

Related Issues: