Use of state property by religious groups must be all or none

Washington state is taking a 'nuanced' approach that might well fuel a lawsuit.

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It has long been accepted that religious groups can use public buildings as long as the government does not favor one religion over another. If one religion can use a public school building or a park for an event, then the opportunity must be open to all.

But in Olympia state officials are taking what is being called a "extremely nuanced" approach when determining if a religious group can hold an event on state property.

The state Department of General Administration, with guidance from the Attorney General's Office, is trying to establish a policy that balances the nation's constitutional rights of free speech and religion against the state constitution's limits on government involvement in religion.

"I have to say, I can see where it can be confusing," said Jim Erskine, General Administration's spokesman. "It is something that I believe has to be looked at carefully -- on a case-by-case basis."

And that's the problem. Looking at things on a case-by-case basis by different people is going to create inconsistent standards.

The effort, no matter how well intended, is a disaster waiting to happen. The array of religions is overwhelming. Christianity has many different denominations and there are also other religions such as Islam to Hinduism.

By trying to discern which religious events can be held on state property, Washington state is opening itself -- and the taxpayers -- to a lawsuit it could lose.

The state constitution says: "No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or the support of any religious establishment."

Simple enough. Allow all groups equal access to property when available. The use of the property shouldn't cost the state a cent. If there is a cost involved it must be paid for by the religious group. If all religious groups have the same opportunity to use the property then the state is not offering "support of any religious establishment."

Under the GA rules, there is already concern. The Associated Press reported this week that state administrators denied permits to two Olympia churches that asked to use state property even though officials previously approved other permits for spiritual activity.

According to documents released to The Associated Press under public records laws, prayer, church picnics and advertising for fundraisers sponsored by churches have been allowed but baptisms and religious speeches have not.

AP, however, found the denials closely mirror permits that were approved. For example, one group got approval for an event in June that requested a spot at an Olympia park for a "gathering in a sacred way to join in a world-wide prayer" and a ministry group was granted use of a public park to have bands, dream interpretation and "Words of Encouragement."

The state must be consistent. Either all religious groups get the same access or none do.

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