FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE|
THURSDAY, JANUARY 8, 2003
TDD (202) 514-1888
JUSTICE DEPARTMENT CLOSES INVESTIGATION OF TEXAS CITY’S BARRING OF RELIGIOUS SPEECH AT SENIOR CENTER
WASHINGTON, D.C.- The Justice Department announced today that it has closed an investigation into the city of Balch Springs, Texas, regarding the exclusion of religious speech from the city-owned Balch Springs Senior Center. Earlier today, the city reached a court-filed settlement agreement with seniors who filed a private suit challenging the city’s policy. The settlement permits religious expression by seniors on an equal footing with other types of expression.
The Department’s investigation, opened in November of 2003, stemmed from the city’s August, 2003 decision to stop allowing seniors at the city-owned multi-purpose senior center to pray before meals, sing gospel songs and listen to a weekly devotional speech given by a Protestant minister who was also a member of the center. All of these activities were voluntary and run by involved seniors at the center, and not by the city or its employees. The focus of the Department’s investigation was whether the city’s prohibition on religious speech, while permitting members to engage in speech on a variety of topics from other viewpoints, violated the Free Speech and Equal Protection Clauses of the Constitution, and Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination in public facilities based on religion.
On December 22nd, the Balch Springs City Council voted unanimously to lift the ban on religious activity at the center and to adopt a policy that will permit speakers to address center members without regard to the content or viewpoint of the address.
“Senior citizens should not be forced to check their faith at the door in order to participate in city-run programs and facilities,” said R. Alexander Acosta, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. “There is a critical difference between government-sponsored religious speech, which raises legitimate concerns about government neutrality toward religion, and the personal religious expression of citizens who wish to engage in activities such as voluntary prayer before meals.”
Individuals who believe they may have been victims of religion-based discrimination in the areas of housing or land-use may call the Justice Department’s Housing and Civil Enforcement Section at (202) 514-4713 or (800) 896-7743. Additional information is available at the Department’s website, <http://www.usdoj.gov/crt/religdisc/religionpamp.htm>.