Rally was fine; run-up to event was needlessly divisive

July 9, 2013

A line drawn in the sand. Various versions of this headline were too perfect not to use for the recent mini-controversy about religious services at the beach.

And various media outlets did, both locally and nationally.

The story, of course, involved the request by New Covenant Presbyterian Church of Lewes to hold eight services this summer at the Rehoboth Beach Bandstand.

The city denied this request and then a subsequent request to hold a service on the beach.

In defiance of this decision, a Fourth of July pro-freedom rally was announced, to be held on the beach. Later, the city wisely relented, granting permission to hold the beach rally.

But, not before the controversy blossomed into a culture war event on Fox News and Glenn Beck’s show.

The symbolism of holding the event on Independence Day was as effective as the “line-in-the-sand” line. A flyer promoting the rally said it was being held “IN DEFIANCE OF TYRANNY.”

Tyranny? Not quite.

This wasn’t a case of acting in defiance of a foreign king, who, with Parliament, exercised power over citizens who had no representation.

It was a mundane and common-sense decision by the city, at least as far as the Bandstand. The city has every right to limit the use of the Bandstand for entertainment.

If the city had granted New Covenant the use of its Bandstand, it would have set a precedent. How could it say no to any church or organization that wanted to use the city’s facilities to spread its message?

The bandstand could be turned into a battleground.

As far as the service on the beach, I support the church’s supporters right to hold their rally there. I recall summer Bible classes on the beach while I was out renting umbrellas and beach chairs for Dick Catts in the ‘70s. Rehoboth also has a history of Easter sunrise services.

(And like Dennis Forney, I recall the extraordinary voice of the man who walked the Boardwalk exhorting vacationers to “REPENT!” It’s hard to describe the thunderous power and resonance of his voice. You could hear him coming from blocks away. In an odd way, though his message was quite serious; his presence added to the festive nature of an evening walking the boards.)

It’s not the actions of the church’s supporters I find unfortunate, but the tone of the flyer. The Fourth of July should be a day when our country comes together, when we celebrate our common heritage. It’s a shame to use the holiday as a way to highlight our differences.

Yes, the city made a mistake in saying the church couldn’t hold its event on the beach. But I think it was just a mistake, not a sign of hostility toward religion or an example of tyranny. The promotion of the event struck me – and perhaps this wasn’t the intention of the organizers – as too political and too strident.

Even with beach services, though, I think the city has legitimate concerns and authority.

If services became so regular and so large that they interfered with the enjoyment of the beach by others, the city would have a right to put limits on time and location.

(As an aside, many neighborhoods have all kinds of rules. Where I live, for example, in the Villages of Five Points, the bylaws say we can’t put up political signs, a clear violation of First Amendment rights. I don’t think that rule would stand if challenged, but it’s there.)

To his credit, Pastor Robert Dekker didn’t use and distanced himself from the language of defiance and tyranny. And the rally itself was peaceful.

But I think the church’s supporters could have achieved the same ends with a softer – one might say more Christian – approach. Obviously, the city couldn’t have sent police officers to drag worshippers off the beach. Imagine the publicity that would have generated. The church’s supporters had the upper hand the whole time.

And so ends my sermon. You will be happy to know I have no plans to deliver it on the beach or the Bandstand.

  • A number of accomplished writers will be appearing in the Politics column every Tuesday on a rotating basis to explore the dynamic world of politics at the local, county, state, national and world levels.

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