In the same week America celebrates its independence, a local church request for a service in Rehoboth Beach has raised questions about freedom of speech and separation of church and state.
In May, Rehoboth Beach City Manager Greg Ferrese denied a request from New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Lewes to conduct church services at the Bandstand. In response, supporters have organized a rally at 9:30 a.m., Thursday, July 4, on the beach at Rehoboth Avenue. A flyer says the service is “in defiance of tyranny” and would feature a peaceful sermon given by New Covenant Senior Pastor The Rev. Robert Dekker.
Dekker said he would attend what he called “a pro-freedom rally,” organized by Christian Hudson of Hudson Property Management. The rally is not a church event, Dekker said, and the aggressive language of the flyer is not consistent with his views or those of his church.
For his part, Dekker said he was not looking to have a war with the city.
“Our agenda is not an evil agenda,” he said, adding that the beach services fit in with Rehoboth’s past as a Methodist camp-meeting ground.
Ferrese said the Bandstand is not available for rent or for religious services. He said he told Bekker the Bandstand was for entertainment purposes only. Ferrese said he met with Bekker June 27 to discuss his request.
In a letter to Ferrese May 21, Dekker requested eight weeks of services, from June 9 to July 28, 8-8:45 a.m., at the Bandstand. Dekker's letter said the services would be half music and half speaking and that there were no plans for an offering. Dekker said the Bandstand is already used for annual Easter Sunrise services.
After Ferrese denied the request, he said the church then requested to use the beach. He said it has traditionally been city policy not to allow religious demonstrations on public beaches, mainly on grounds of separation of church and state, but also because the city does not want to offend visitors who may not agree with a service. Ferrese added that if he allowed one church to have a beach service, he’d be inundated with requests. He said he has already moved a Christmas manger and a Christmas wreath away from the Bandstand after receiving complaints.
“When you’re dealing with church and public property, you have to be careful,” Ferrese said. “We’re really in a no-win situation.”
Mayor Sam Cooper referred questions on the request to Ferrese.
Dekker said he got the idea for a Sunday beach service after his friend, The Rev. Gary Knapp of East Gate Presbyterian Church in Long Neck, held similar services. The planned services were also intended to provide an alternative for New Covenant’s members who have to use Route 1 from Bethany Beach and points south, battling traffic on Sunday mornings. Dekker said the service would also provide a place for people who may not want to step into a church to hear the Gospel.
"There’s no hostility,” he said. “We want to be a blessing to the community.”
Despite not being a member of the church, Hudson occasionally attends services at New Covenant and said when he heard Dekker was denied, he decided to stand up for him.
“Public property is open to all,” Hudson said. “You can’t deny access to public property based solely on religious grounds. That’s a major civil rights violation.”
Hudson said the rally was not a protest and that he has nothing against Ferrese or the city, but he wanted to give Dekker the opportunity to preach the gospel on the beach at least once this summer. He said the sermon would last about 45 minutes, and he did not know what kind of turnout the rally will draw.
For Dekker, the situation has led to interviews with national radio personality Glenn Beck.
“My goal is to communicate the gospel by word or by deed and that’s what I’m doing,” Dekker said. As of presstime, Dekker was planning to participate in the rally.
Ferrese said if the church wants to have a service it should be at their church, not on a public beach. He said he did not know if the church was going to go forward with a service on July 4. No permits were sought for the July 4 rally, but Ferrese said if it goes forward, as long as it does not violate city ordinances, "so be it."
“I’m not aware of that,” Ferrese said. “I hope he honors my request not to do it.”