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Suns face religious discrimination claim

April 22, 1998|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

A Waynesboro, Pa., man claims that a Hagerstown Suns promotion that gives families a discount on Sundays for bringing a church bulletin to the ballpark violates his civil rights and is religious discrimination, a team spokesman said Tuesday.

But officials of the Class A minor league baseball team, an affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, say they believe the popular promotion is a natural for an area with a high percentage of churchgoers and is not discriminatory.

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"We have never required fans to have a religious affiliation to receive our special Sunday discount. We only ask they provide a church bulletin," said Suns General Manager David Blenkstone.

Suns spokesman Mike Heckman said the team has run the promotion for five years with no complaints and a positive response.

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The unnamed man filed a written complaint, charging religious discrimination based on the promotion's terms and conditions, with the Maryland Human Relations Commission on April 17, said Heckman, who released a copy of the complaint with the complainant's name and address removed.

It stemmed from the man's experience on April 12, when he said he took his daughters to a home game and was told that since he didn't have a church bulletin he would have to pay full regular price, according to the complaint copy.

He said he told the ticket clerk, "I'm not religious, so I don't have a church bulletin," but was told he would still have to pay the regular price, according to the complaint copy.

The Human Relations Commission doesn't verify whether complaints are filed and won't discuss complaints during an investigation, said Glendora Hughes, the commission's general counsel.

The commission investigates complaints of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, color, national origin, physical or mental disabilities, age and marital status, Hughes said.

If a complaint were filed, it would be looked into by the commission's investigator in Hagerstown, she said.

A local legislator and a Washington County church leader say they agree with the Suns officials' assertion that the promotion isn't discriminatory.

"To the gentleman who filed the ridiculous charge of discrimination, I say, 'Stay home,'" Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said in the Suns' release.

"The fact is that most families in the area worship on Sundays. I cannot think of a better way to allow a family a reasonably priced afternoon of fun," he said.

Donoghue said Tuesday in an interview that he thinks the promotion is "very pro-family and just a nice thing to do."

The Rev. David M. Buchenroth, president of the Washington County Council of Churches, said the promotion "seems pretty harmless" as long as the team offers alternative promotions during the season.

"Personally, I would have a hard time calling that discrimination," said Buchenroth, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Hagerstown.

The team runs a variety of promotions to draw families to games, including newspaper coupon discount offers on Mondays and Fridays, Heckman said.

Although he was charged regular price, the complainant paid only $2 more than the $6 family deal he would have gotten with a church bulletin, Heckman said.

The man paid the regular $5 price, one child was admitted free and the other was charged the child's rate of $3, he said.

Once inside the stadium, the children participated in an Easter egg hunt, Heckman said.

If probable cause for a complaint is found, the commission attempts to settle the case without litigation, which could mean bringing in a third-party mediator, Hughes said.

If it still isn't settled, she said, she reviews the complaint to see if it warrants litigation and, if it does, it goes before an administrative law judge, usually in the county in which the complaint was filed.

The judge can order the violator to pay monetary damages to the state as well as to fashion "relief" to the complainant to fit the damages, she said.

For example, the judge could order a letter of apology in the case of an insult or ask that a discriminatory policy be changed.

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