MISSOULA COUNTY, Mont. – Leaders of a Christian organization are convinced a group of atheists were successful in getting annual fellowship services moved from the Missoula County Fair, but church organizers say they’re determined to make the best of their new location.
Still, churchgoers who worship at the service resent that any group could get them relocated.
Sunday morning church is a long-standing tradition at the Missoula County Fair, thanks to the Missoula Christian Network’s planning. But that tradition fell by the wayside this year after complaints from a national atheist group, which called the service “a violation of civil rights.”
Rebecca Markert, staff attorney for the atheist/agnostic group Freedom From Religion, said, “Anyone who went to the church service received free admission to the county fair, which is a violation of the Civil Rights Act. It discriminates against non-churchgoers.”
Freedom From Religion sent a letter to the Missoula County Board of Commissioners, urging them to “discontinue these discriminatory actions by eliminating the Christian service altogether at this year’s County Fair.”
According to Steve Earle, director of the Missoula County Fairgrounds, the churchgoers did receive free admission – but so did every other Sunday morning fair attendee. The fair does not offer churchgoers any special privileges, Earle told FoxNews.com.
“We have a tradition of doing ‘community days’ on Sundays, with an open gate until noon, to beef up the crowd,” Earle said. “It’s open to anyone and it’s not related to any religious service.”
Fair organizers moved this year’s church service from the fairgrounds to nearby Ogren-Allegiance Park, a baseball stadium that is outside the confines of the county fair, which runs from August 10-15. That decision, according to Earle, had to do with a scheduling conflict and not Freedom From Religion’s complaint.
“We’re already talking about having a Christian worship service next year on Sunday morning,” Earle said.
Michael Burks, a Missoula County businessman who helped plan the church service in the baseball stadium, spoke out against Freedom From Religion’s civil rights complaint.
“Christians don’t want to be against anyone,” Burks said. “For people to tell us to ‘Go back in your church and shut the door,’ for an organization to tell us we can’t get together for this service, is unconstitutional. If it was a Buddhist prayer service or a gay pride parade, I wouldn’t tell them they couldn’t meet somewhere. This is not what America’s about.”
“I don’t understand honestly why Freedom From Religion got involved,” Burks said, noting that the group is not based in Montana, but in Wisconsin. “They’re trying to make it sound like you have to go to the service to get free admission to the fair, but you don’t. Hopefully, clarification will fix it.”
Keith Mobley, a pastor with the Missoula Christian Network, said, “There are people in this town that are very anti-Christ, anti-religion, anti-Church. You could say this is Liberal-ville, Montana. But we’re not going to let some out-of-state group tell us we can’t meet at our county fair to worship.”
Markert, however, says her group is acting on behalf of Missoula’s own citizens, and at least one of them specifically asked the group to intervene.
“We’re a membership organization and we act on protests from our members,” Markert said. “We received a complaint from a member in Missoula County.”
Meanwhile, Mobley is hopeful the church service will return to next year’s County Fair.
“If the churches had really wanted to, we could’ve had the service,” Mobley said. “And we plan to next year.”
In the meantime, the church-service organizers and attendees are enjoying their temporary exile from the Missoula County Fair.
“Honestly I’m not too upset about the change of venue,” Burks said. “Where the church service was originally located [at the county fair] was far from concessions and parking. There was no seating. This is a test run, but the new location is much more convenient and comfortable. We’re even getting games and jumpers for the kids so people don’t need to find baby-sitting.”
“It’s the whole making lemonade from lemons thing,” Burks said.