Dekker wrote back to City Hall on June 30 seeking a permit for the July 4 rally, saying he planned to “celebrate freedom on our nation’s birthday” with an event to include “music, prayer, testimony and preaching.” On Tuesday he got permission from Ferrese’s office for that one-time event. Ferrese did not return calls for comment about the original permit’s denial, but the city manager’s office provided a copy of his July 2 letter to Dekker allowing the planned rally.
REHOBOTH BEACH — A pastor’s plan to lead eight Sunday-morning services near the Rehoboth boardwalk has evolved into a rally “in defiance of tyranny” and defending the principle of religious liberty, after Rehoboth’s town manager denied permission to hold the services there because of “church and state” issues.
At 9:30 a.m. on Thursday – Independence Day, as busy as the tourist season gets at the beach resorts – the Rev. Robert Dekker, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Lewes, intends to give a sermon on the beach at the end of Rehoboth Avenue.
That came about, Dekker said, after he asked Rehoboth officials in late May for permission to lead eight Sunday morning services at the nearby public bandstand and Rehoboth City Manager Greg Ferrese turned him down.
“I cannot mix church and state,” Ferrese’s email reply to Dekker said. “I trust you understand.”
But Dekker, in an interview Tuesday, said he didn’t understand – and didn’t think the principle of church-state separation should lead to the denial of his request.
“We believe that we do have the liberty to proclaim the gospel,” Dekker said. “This whole concept of being silent and backing away, it doesn’t fit.”
Dekker said he met with Ferrese in person about his permit application, which sought permission to hold events on Sunday mornings from June 9 to July 28. Ferrese was kind and polite, Dekker said, but did not change his mind about the denial.
Word of the rejected application spread at Dekker’s church, which Christian Hudson, a Sussex County property developer, occasionally attends. Hudson, working with Dekker, proposed an event meant to reassert the right to lead a peaceful worship service on public property, scheduling it for the morning of July 4.
Hudson said he heard Dekker mention the permit rejection two weeks ago in a Sunday sermon, and it spurred him to arrange Thursday’s event.
He points out the city allows a group of churches to lead sunrise services on Easter at the public bandstand, and said the denial seemed a clear-cut case of wrongly denying a group access to public facilities because of the content of their speech.
“You can’t prevent any group from using public property for religious services,” Hudson said. “And if atheists wanted to do something and were prevented solely because they didn’t have a religion, I’d be standing with the atheists. They have as much right to the public square.”
Hiram Sasser, director of litigation at the Texas-based Liberty Institute, said the controversy sounded like a cut-and-dried “facilities access” dispute, something the Supreme Court issued key rulings on during the 1990s. All of the rulings, Sasser said, granted religious groups access to facilities they’d been denied.
“Every time, the government loses. It’s actually fairly rare now to see a case like this, to see a government say you can’t use our facilities because of the religious nature of your speech,” Sasser said. “For the most part, when the city’s attorney gets wind of it, these kinds of issues just melt away.”
Watch Pastor Robert Dekker’s interview on Fox and Friends from July 3.