Town officials said last week they need to tap legal counsel prior to allowing Jehovah’s Witnesses to use a section of Mead Park for their ministry.
A representative from the South Salem, N.Y.-based congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses told members of the Parks & Recreation Commission during their regular meeting last week that they’d like to set up a cart for “witnessing” for personal ministry at Mead.
“The objective is Bible principles practical with family life,” Gabriel Almaguer told the Commission during its July 13 meeting, held at Lapham Community Center.
He brought a cart with him to the meeting to show the commissioners. It included a poster saying “Find Family Happiness” with pamphlets including “Awake! Six Lessons Children Need To Learn” “Your Family Can Be Happy” and “My Bible Lessons.”
“What we would do is set it up somewhere, stand next to it,” Almaguer said. “We don’t solicit or ask for donations. We will engage someone with a warm smile or a greeting.”
After much discussion, Commission Chair George Benington said the town would need to get clarification from legal counsel about what is required of the municipality with respect to the First Amendment right of free speech, as well as what can be regulated via local ordinance, and asked Almaguer to return for the next Parks & Rec meeting, scheduled for Sept. 14.
Commissioners asked Almaguer where he planned to set up (somewhere along the stone wall overlooking Mead Pond), how often the Jehovah’s Witnesses would be there (a pair of representatives could be there, for example, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on a Saturday, perhaps a weekday in addition), what the duration of the ministry would be (they could try it out for a month and then, if all goes well, continue on a month-to-month basis), and whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses themselves would be coming down from South Salem (there are members of the Christian denomination in New Canaan, and the congregation also serves towns such as Wilton and Ridgefield).
Almaguer asked whether, rather than being stationed by the stone wall, where people would need to cross a parking lot to get literature, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could set up near the entrance to the Mead Park Playground “between the dumpster and the actual play area.”
“We have stuff for kids,” he said.
The commissioners and town officials pushed back on the idea, saying that’s a very active pedestrian area with kids going back-and-forth between the playgrounds, baseball fields and Apple Cart Food Co., and that there also are many cars rolling by and the area shouldn’t be blocked.
Commissioner Keith Richey said the town should be careful about setting a precedent whereby any religious or political group would be allowed to have open use of public parks and “basically we would be bound to have to say yes to all of them.”
Commissioner Hank Green agreed, saying, “I’m uncomfortable about setting a precedent which allows them or any religious group or any political group to say ‘Hey, you’re allowing people to do this and we should be able to do it also.’ I just don’t think Mead Park, that is atmosphere or culture that we want to have in Mead Park. And there may be other places in New Canaan where the Jehovah’s Witnesses or anyone else can do this. I just don’t see Mead Park as the place for this to happen.”
Richey responded by saying, “I actually don’t think we have grounds to say no. I think they have a First Amendment right. There have been some Supreme Court cases lately. It’s a public park, it’s a public place, I think they essentially have a right to do it.”
Commissioner Gene Goodman said that free speech doesn’t necessarily mean any group can make any use it wants of a public space, such as putting up a 50-foot-wide banner.
“Freedom of speech doesn’t cover anything you want to do,” Goodman said.
Commissioner Steve Haberstroh said, “At the very least we probably look into this and maybe provide guidance to set a framework. I don’t want to infringe on anybody’s free speech, but I just feel like we should research it a bit and then provide guidance, whether it’s a designated area or certain times of the week.”
Almaguer agreed to return in September.
During the meeting, Goodman also said it wasn’t clear to him “whether this falls under the advertising situation.”
“It’s not obviously for a profit-making organization,” he continued. “But at the same time, it’s a ‘neither fish nor fowl kind of question,’ is it advertising or not? I don’t know how one answers that question. But certainly we do have prohibitions against advertising.”
Goodman himself has been a driving force behind the “ice rink” which was supposed to launch in Waveny Park last winter and is planned for a late-November opening this year. Parks & Rec last November voted 10-0 in favor of allowing advertising in the rink.
Under Section 42-8 of the Town Code, “No person shall distribute any handbills or circulars or post any bills, notices or advertising matter of any kind and nature in any park.”