Alliance Defense Fund attorneys reached a settlement agreement with the city of Pensacola on behalf of St. Faustina Old Catholic Church, freeing it to hold church picnics once again at Plaza Ferdinand VII, a popular historic park in downtown Pensacola. ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit against the city in April after Pensacola police ordered the church’s pastor to stop holding picnics at the plaza and declared the plaza a “non-event park,” even though events with thousands of people took place at the location on a regular basis.
“Christian groups shouldn’t be banned from public parks for engaging in faith-based activities,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Daniel Blomberg. “We commend the city for agreeing to scrap its profoundly unconstitutional access policy for the park and recognizing the church’s right to meet there and minister to the community through food and fellowship.”
Police told Rev. Nathan Monk of St. Faustina Old Catholic Church in February that his picnics were no longer allowed at the park, which has been designated as a public square since 1764. One officer told Monk that the Thursday night fellowship--ranging from 20 to 30 church members and park visitors--attracted “undesirables,” referring to homeless people who often accepted the church’s offer to join the picnic. The officer admitted that police had received no complaints about trash or disruptive behavior associated with the picnics.
After ADF attorneys informed the city that its discriminatory closure of the park to the church was unconstitutional, the city continued to deny the church access to the park, adding that the ban existed to protect the park’s grass. This explanation made little sense to the church, as its picnics only took place on a paved area accessed by paved walkways, no signs in the plaza requested that people stay off the grass, and police had never mentioned the grass when ordering the church to leave.
Despite the decision to settle with the church, the city is now using protecting the park’s grass as its rationale for a separate decision unrelated to the lawsuit. The city plans to only permit large groups to use the park during the summer months, which will prevent larger events from taking place at the park during the winter, to the dismay of the church and organizers of other events.
“Though unrelated to our lawsuit, we hope the city will ultimately allow access to the plaza year-round so that events, like the popular Winterfest event that has been held at the plaza for over a decade, can still go on,” Blomberg said. “While the new policy properly avoids infringing on the rights of the church, it could open the city up to future lawsuits from other larger groups seeking access to the park.”
ADF-allied attorney Mark Welton of the Crestview law firm Welton & Williamson, LLC, is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit St. Faustina Old Catholic Church v. City of Pensacola, which was filed with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. ADF attorneys will file a voluntary dismissal of the lawsuit once the settlement arrangements are finalized.
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