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Suns church promo prompts federal lawsuit

September 01, 1998|By BRENDAN KIRBY

A Waynesboro, Pa., man who has been waging an effort to stop the Hagerstown Suns baseball team from offering a church bulletin promotion has filed a federal lawsuit against the team.

According to the complaint filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Carl H. Silverman alleges that the promotion discriminates against nonbelievers such as himself.

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Silverman's attorney, Michael D. Berman, filed a motion to assign the case to a U.S. magistrate judge and another motion to delay it until a complaint filed with the Maryland Commission on Human Relations is settled.

"This is a matter which can, and should, be settled," Berman said.

The Suns, a Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, have offered the church bulletin promotion for the last five years. The club gives a discount on Sundays to fans who bring a church bulletin to city-owned Municipal Stadium.

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Silverman, 43, filed a complaint with the state human relations commission in April after he attended a Sunday game without a church bulletin last Easter and was forced to pay the full price of $8 for him and his two children, rather than the $6 family discount price, he said.

The Maryland Commission on Human Relations found probable cause for Silverman's complaint in August, but has not set a date for a hearing before an administrative law judge.

Silverman's federal suit asks a judge to take one of two actions: Require the team to expand the promotion to allow bulletins from all nonprofit groups, not just religious-based groups; or bar the team from offering the discount at all.

"What he has asked is that the program be broadened," Berman said.

Silverman said he offered a proposed settlement under which the Suns would create a "Nonprofit Day" and post a nondiscrimination statement at the team's box office.

"I think the bottom line of it is we were getting stonewalled by the Suns," said Silverman, who gained attention in 1996 when he led the fight against a group that was distributing New Testament Bibles in public elementary schools.

Suns General Manager David Blenckstone said he has not seen the lawsuit, but he said holding a "Nonprofit Day" is no solution.

"My gut reaction is, I don't see what that accomplishes," he said. "What if you're not in any kind of a nonprofit organization."

Blenckstone said several fans have offered to send Silverman church bulletins.

"I don't feel like we're discriminating with the promotion we have now," he said. "If the guy wants to save $2, he can walk into any church and get a bulletin."

"It's absurd and it's getting old. I've heard of one person from across the country that sees it the way this guy sees it - and that's him," he said.

Silverman, however, said he has received reaction both pro and con.

"The amount of money is irrelevant. The principle is much more important," he said. "There is no reason why I should have to walk into someone else's house of worship to gain equal access to a public accommodation."

Many people in the Tri-State area have rallied around the ball club. More than 2,100 people, double a normal Monday crowd, showed up for a "Faith Community Night" game on Aug. 18 to raise money for the team's legal defense.

Silverman has drawn support from civil libertarians and other organizations that believe the team cannot legally hold a religious-based promotion.

"Of course, we back him 100 percent. America's pastime, which belongs to all Americans, should not be used as a tool for promoting religious beliefs, even indirectly," said Ron Barrier, a spokesman for the 3,000-member American Atheists based in Austin, Texas.

Barrier, in a telephone interview from New York, called the "Faith Community Night" a "slap in the face." He said the religious aspect is different from various promotions that give discounts to children or senior citizens.

"We were all kids, and with a little bit of luck, we'll all be senior citizens," he said.

Silverman had declined media interviews for several months because he said he wanted to give the human relations commission a chance to conduct its investigation without his interference.

He now has begun granting interviews and has appeared on talk radio shows across the country, he said.

Although the national exposure has been entertaining in a way, Silverman said his complaint is important.

"It's a serious issue," he said.

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