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Judge hears arguments in Suns case

June 28, 1999

Suns hearingBy DAN KULIN / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




A ruling against the Hagerstown Suns' Church Bulletin Days promotion could jeopardize similar attendance-boosting gimmicks used by the Suns and minor league baseball clubs nationwide, a lawyer for the team told a judge Monday.

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But a state civil rights lawyer who is arguing the case against the Suns said the team's offer of a discount to people who bring religious bulletins to Sunday home games is discrimination based on one's creed, and is as wrong as discrimination based on race or color.

Their arguments came during the first day of a hearing before Administrative Law Judge Georgia Brady. The hearing stems from a complaint by self-proclaimed agnostic Carl Silverman of Waynesboro, Pa.

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Brady will decide whether the Suns' church bulletin promotion is discriminatory.

Lawyers for both sides said the hearing probably will conclude Wednesday, and a ruling on the matter could take a month or six weeks.

Silverman contends he and his two daughters were illegally denied a family discount price of $6 because they did not bring a church bulletin to a game on Easter Sunday 1998. Instead they paid $8 to see the Suns play.

The Maryland Commission on Human Relations, which charged the Suns with discrimination based on Silverman's claims, is seeking a court order that the Suns stop the 6-year-old promotion, a $500 civil penalty against the team, sensitivity training for Suns officials, and an order that the Suns provide discounted tickets for people like Silverman who didn't previously get the discount because of their personal beliefs, commission attorney Patricia Wood said.

Suns lawyer Joseph A. Schwartz III said his clients were like "the little engine that could."

The club, a Class A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, is tops in its league in wins. But the team ranks second from the bottom in home field attendance and the church bulletin promotion is a way to lure fans, he said.

Schwartz said that other promotions such as Boy Scout discount nights, a Father's Day promotion, and discounts given to senior citizens and children, are in jeopardy as a result of the complaint.

Schwartz also said that Silverman went out of his way to create the controversy.

"He wanted a lawsuit" Schwartz said.

During his questioning of Silverman on Monday, Schwartz reviewed how Silverman searched the Internet for a copy of the federal anti-discrimination law and printed it out and took it with him to the game.

Silverman said he took along a copy of the law so that if he were denied a discount he would be able to explain his position and show Suns' officials the law if they weren't aware of it.

Schwartz also questioned Silverman about the many ways Silverman could have come to posses such a bulletin without going to church.

Schwartz implied that Silverman could have gotten the discount if he had presented, as evidence of his creed, a copy of the atheistic newspaper Freethought Today, which Silverman had taken to the stadium but left in his car.

Silverman said that he brought the newspaper in case the Suns gave him the option of providing them with an alternative to a church bulletin. He said he did not suggest that the Suns take the newspaper instead of a church bulletin because he did not want it to look like he was attempting to defraud the club.

Schwartz said that Silverman proved the old adage that "anyone who can bang a drum can make a lot of noise."

Silverman said that giving a church bulletin to the ticket seller would have violated his creed.

"By publicly presenting a religious document that I don't agree with and don't subscribe to I'd be making a statement that I don't believe in," Silverman said.

The hearing began behind closed doors at about 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Brady had closed the meeting to the public because she said she thought the cafeteria at the Maryland State Police barracks in Hagerstown would be too small to accommodate the press and witnesses on hand, according to state police officers and lawyers for both sides.

About 30 minutes into the hearing Brady opened the meeting after seven people with the American Civil Liberties Union were allowed into the closed hearing.

Schwartz said that when he saw all the ACLU people coming in he asked the judge to reconsider closing the hearing to the public.

Brady declined to explain her actions.

At the most crowded time, 16 people were in the audience and there were several empty seats.

Three women were on hand to support the Suns on the first day of the hearing.

The women, who said they were devoted fans and Suns' supporters, each stood along the road leading to the barrack holding large signs.

Two of the signs read, "We support the Suns Church Bulletin Promotion." The other sign read "Frivolous lawsuits waste everyone's time."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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