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