'Church bulletin' discount is upheld; Judge OKs promotion by Hagerstown Suns


God, at least for now, is safe at the ballpark. And so are atheists and agnostics, as far as the law is concerned.

In a ruling that surprised attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, an administrative law judge ruled yesterday that the Hagerstown Suns minor league baseball club can continue to offer discounts to fans bearing church bulletins.

ACLU lawyers say the ruling could have consequences for certain business promotions in the state, including popular "ladies' nights" at bars that offer reduced-price drink specials to women, because the judge upheld the concept that price discrimination is illegal.

The ruling was unexpected because the Maryland Human Relations Commission had issued an opinion in July that there was "probable cause" to believe the Suns' promotion broke the law by discriminating based on religion.

But in her 35-page ruling, Administrative Law Judge Georgia Brady said the Suns' promotion was perfectly legal because not only were Jews, Catholics and other religious people admitted at a discount but agnostics and atheists could get the deal as well.

Church Bulletin Day was a promotion, but there was no actual requirement for fans to bring bulletins to the stadium to get the discount, she ruled. Thus, there was no discrimination.

"The complainant was not denied any advantage of the Suns," the judge wrote in her ruling. "He was offered every advantage without regard to his creed."

Attorneys for the ACLU, which joined the lawsuit on behalf of an agnostic from Pennsylvania, said they agreed with parts of the opinion but would likely appeal her ruling that the promotion is not discriminatory and can continue.

The case began on Easter 1998.

In keeping with the gimmickry common to minor league baseball, the Suns offered a deal it had promoted the previous five years: Entire families could gain admission to the stadium for a total of $6, a discount from regular prices of $5 for adults and $3 for children.

But to get the discount, according to advertisements for the promotion, a family member had to present a church bulletin.

When Carl Silverman, an agnostic from Waynesboro, Pa., arrived at the ticket window of Hagerstown Municipal Stadium with a daughter in tow, he demanded the discounted rate to watch the Suns play the Piedmont Boll Weevils. He had no bulletin.

Important to the judge's ruling, the Suns testified at a hearing in June that the ticket seller placed an extra church bulletin on the counter and told Silverman he could use it for the discount.

According to the testimony, Silverman refused, proclaiming, "I am not a religious man." He then paid full price for his tickets. With that, the legal dispute was born.

"Our first reaction is we're very pleased we won," said David Blenckstone, the team's general manager. "It's also a relief to get this over with. It's been almost two years now since this has been hanging over our head."

Added Winston Blenckstone, his father and the team owner: "We may now continue the normal and not-so-normal promotions that have become popular in Hagerstown."

The team has maintained that the promotion is designed to get people into the park, not keep them away. It's no different from offering discounts to fans who present newspaper coupons, the team argued, and it's no more discriminating than its promotion, "A Night With the Dynamite Lady."

Silverman, an activist known for his legal actions to keep church separated from state, claimed that discriminating against agnostics or atheists was akin to discriminating against Jews, Catholics, blacks or whites.

Under the state's "public accommodations" law, any promotion that discriminates based on religion -- or lack of it -- is illegal.

"The ruling is essentially that a business can advertise a church bulletin discount as long as it doesn't really have one in effect," said Mike Berman, an attorney for the ACLU in Baltimore. "In short, you can have a church bulletin discount in name only."

Silverman and the ACLU had argued that the mere requirement of presenting a bulletin could be interpreted as a signal of a person's beliefs.

But the judge said that Maryland's public accommodation law is violated only when there is a discriminatory effect. Because Silverman was offered a discounted admission regardless of whether he presented a bulletin, there was no violation of law, Brady found.

She wrote: "Maryland law does not prohibit the [Suns] from running its church bulletin promotion as long as the promotion is implemented as it was in Silverman's case -- without regard to creed and with an offer of reasonable accommodation to those who are unable to produce a bulletin because of their beliefs."

Silverman could not be reached for comment.

The judge's opinion went beyond the immediate case.

There long has been disagreement on whether certain kinds of price discrimination are illegal. The Suns had argued that even if the team had offered discounts only to specific religions, it would not have been violating the law because it did not exclude anybody from the ballpark.

Judge Brady disagreed with that, saying that price discrimination is illegal under the state's public accommodations statute.

Dwight Sullivan, an attorney for the ACLU, said the judge's ruling indicated such promotions as ladies' nights would be illegal because discrimination based on gender is also illegal under the law.

"Before this ruling, there was uncertainty as to whether the statute applied to discriminatory price discounts," he said. "This ruling says they're not allowed."

Pub Date: 10/13/99

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