SEBASTIAN – A Christian group wanting to host a Memorial Day rock concert at Riverview Park will have to find another place to jam after the Sebastian City Council split 2-2 on the request.
Councilwoman Andrea Coy called the issue of public resources being used for religious purposes the “elephant in the room.” Concern about setting precedent for any and all religious groups to use city parks for functions caused the council to split. Vice Mayor Jim Hill was absent from the meeting, leaving four council members to vote on the matter.
Reclaimed Ministries, along with DJ Anything Under the Stars and Sky, had asked for a special use permit for Riverview Park to host Rock on the River, a Christian rock concert on May 29 from 4 to 10 p.m.
Coy told her fellow council members they might have to work out a policy for handling such requests. She warned the council that approving Reclaimed Ministries’ request could set a precedent that would force the city to allow all religious groups to hold functions at city parks.
“There are fringe organizations out there and we’d have to let them in, too,” Coy said, adding that the council should be very careful opening that door. “Personally, I don’t think the door should be opened.”
Mayor Richard Gillmor pointed out that an Easter Sunrise service was held at Riverview Park. City Manager Al Minner added that a National Day of Prayer gathering was held at City Hall.
Coy said that having Easter service at the park was not an issue because it was for a couple hours – not the six Reclaimed Ministries wants – and involved a small portion of the park, not the entire area.
Sebastian resident Louise Kautenburg agreed with Coy, noting that she does not have anything against religious groups, but that she has a problem with one group having the exclusive right to use a city park for so long on a holiday that most people would want to use the park.
She asked the council to come up with rules that would be the same across the board, regardless of the group wanting to use the park.
Kautenburg also told the council it should consider the cost to the public’s assets at the park – water, electricity, wear and tear.
“That is going to have an impact on public utilities,” she said.
Both Gillmor and Councilman Eugene Wolff supported the group’s special use permit – with conditions that Reclaimed Ministries could prove its 501(c)3 status, show it had insurance for the event, and that it pay for the use of the city’s stage.
Councilman Don Wright questioned the policies the city has with regard to such park usage, adding that he, too, believes the city needs to better address the rules and create a standard practice.
Wright voted against the request.
Minner told the council that the city does have policies in place and city codes that must be followed, though there is no written standard.
“It’s not a complete shot in the dark,” he said.
Gillmor told the council that approving Reclaimed Ministries’ requested permit would not be precedent setting as other religious groups have already used Riverview Park. One group, along with a church, held a Christmas Eve celebration at the park.
Jim Sunnycalb threw together a last-minute gathering at the park last Christmas without knowing if anyone would attend. A few hundred showed up.
“It brought the community together,” Sunnycalb told the council after they asked him about the event.
Coy said Sunnycalb’s event was spontaneous and happened with short notice.
“It’s apples and oranges,” she said of comparing Christmas Eve in the Park with Rock on the River. “This is different. This is something that’s planned.”
Coy added that Christmas Eve in the Park might have to fall under whatever rules the council comes up with regarding religious activities at parks.
“Let’s go down the road and do it right,” Sunnycalb said in response.
It is not known when the council might discuss its policies and rules pertaining to religious use of public parks.