Here’s a thing you’ve probably seen dozens of times: People lining up to run or walk in a race in one of many scenic locations in Monterey County.
Here’s a thing you probably haven’t seen: The Diocese of Monterey suing the California Department of Parks and Recreation over a 3K race at Ford Ord Dunes State Park, because parks officials denied the church’s request for a permit.
The lead-up to the lawsuit is a chain of rather mundane emails about permitting for an intended Diocese of Monterey employee health and wellness event on March 14. Organizers proposed the 3K, a farmers market and a lunch for an expected 150 people. Where the email discussion takes a left turn is when Fleccia Wilson, special events coordinator for the Monterey district of State Parks, replies to Susan Mayer, counsel for the Diocese of Monterey, to tell her the event is a no-go.
“[Public Safety Superintendent Sean James] feels that your staying within the park will still impede the public’s access,” Wilson wrote on Jan. 20. Mayer offered to make modifications to ensure public access – in her estimate, only up to 20 members of the public might be affected by the three-hour event. Wilson replied, indicating State Parks wouldn’t budge. “We realize that our decision is an inconvenient (sic),” she wrote. “The superintendent has reviewed your request thoroughly and it is his responsibility to decide what is best for the parks in our area.”
That chain of emails is attached to the Diocese’s lawsuit, filed by law firm Fenton & Keller in Monterey County Superior Court on Feb. 7. Thanks to an expedited process spelled out in California law specifically concerning event permit denials, there is a hearing set for Feb. 18 – lightning speed in the world of courts.
What makes it more than a simple battle over a permit denial is that the Diocese alleges State Parks officials violated their First Amendment rights, based on religious animus. “State Parks improperly denied the Diocese’s permit applications, and was motivated to do so in full or in part, because the Diocese is a religious organization,” according to the complaint.
When our editorial staff tunes into the First Amendment, it’s often in regard to its latter half, about the freedom of the press. But it starts off with religious freedom. As a refresher, here’s part one: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (The framers surely didn’t intend “free exercise” as a pun, but it does work well for a 3K.)
An employee health-and-wellness gathering is an innocuous event, not especially religious in nature, even if the employer is a religious organization. It’s impossible to know exactly what State Parks officials didn’t like about the permit application, because James answered the Weekly's questions a brief statement and no details.
"California’s state park system serves as a venue for a variety of events, including weddings, concerts, marathons, etc. Any person or group is welcome to use a state park for an event, so long as they meet the special requirements of the California Department of Parks and Recreation," he writes. "Policy precludes DPR from commenting further on something that is currently subject to litigation."
We do know from the email chain that Wilson notified the Diocese it was a nonstarter – and then on appeal to Monterey District Superintendent Brent Marshall, it was again denied.
The Diocese sent a brief statement on the lawsuit to say the permit denial is a violation of the Constitution, but did not agree to an interview. In a deliciously ironic First Amendment twist, from what I can tell, the Diocese has forbidden communication with our newspaper ever since we sued them in 2015 seeking to unseal records in a sexual abuse case. (We prevailed.) Last time I called the Diocese, to fact check something in a feature story about the Carmel Mission, I had an oddly antagonistic discussion with an archivist about why they wouldn’t answer the question. They didn’t send us a press release when Bishop Richard Garcia died in 2018, or when current bishop Daniel E. Garcia was appointed. So it’s not really a surprise they won’t talk even when our interests – the broad powers guaranteed in the First Amendment – align.
Speaking of the First Amendment: It also guarantees freedom of assembly. State Parks can deny a permit for a special event, but they can’t stop a bunch of people from getting together on public land to do a run and eat some healthy food. Consider this an invitation to make March 14 everybody’s wellness day at Fort Ord Dunes State Park.
SARA RUBIN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at email@example.com or follow her at twitter.com/sarahayleyrubin