Separation of Church and State — At a Water Park? Really?

Separation of Church and State — At a Water Park? Really? August 14, 2012

You want to swim?

Sorry. You’re going to have to pay more.

All you church people who want to swim with your church youth groups in Willow Springs Water Park in Little Rock, Arkansas, are going to have to pay more thanks to complaints from a non-profit that serves children but is not a church. Eager not to miss an opportunity to evangelize, an humanistic group has also jumped in with both feet, seeking to impress their secular faith upon the private business owner.

Willow Springs Water Park, Little Rock, Arkansas

You can read the entire Fox News story here recounting the horrific practice this park has engaged in for decades — offering discounts to church groups who brought kids to their park. One non-church group that works with youths tried to get the same discount — and the whining began.

The park yanked the discounts for everyone rather than deal with a legal battle. Just to be sure, the Freedom from Religion Foundation  (a national non-profit for the separation of church and state according to the Fox story) sent a letter threatening to force their own secular religion upon the park’s owners if they dared to offer such evil discounts to church groups again. It especially warned against “covert” methods. You know how sneaky those Christians can be trying to get away with practicing the free exercise of religion.

What’s the issue again?

All sarcasm — mostly — aside, what state issues are at stake here exactly? Based on this convoluted logic, churches should also not get any “discount” on their taxes that all other government designated non-profits also receive. Perhaps this group would agree. As best I can see, this situation involves a for-profit, free-standing entity deciding to encourage religion in its community by offering discounts to churches. That word church does have a definition. If your organization doesn’t fit the definition, then you don’t get the discount.

Some critics might claim that offering a discount to some without extending it to all is discriminatory. Yes. And what’s your point?

We live in fear of that word as if all discrimination is necessarily evil. We just finished watching athletes compete in the Summer Olympics on the world stage — and yet not all, or even most, athletes were allowed to participate. One might say that all had the same chance to compete for a spot. Really? The Vietnamese orphans whose adoption couldn’t get through the paperwork hurdles a decade ago had the same chance as the Chinese gymnast forced to train against her will? Shouldn’t we cancel the entire games if all don’t get the same opportunity or privilege?

Why are we so quick to embrace this thinking that if everyone doesn’t get it, no one gets it? If I can’t afford or find a Sunday newspaper, should others be permitted to use the coupons they get in their copy? After all, it would speed up the checkout lines a bit for all of us if we just banned coupons altogether. And then no one would feel left out. If we’re going to apply this principle across society, a lot of atheists will be paying more and getting less out of a lot in life.

Here’s the irony: the park continues to offer discounts for public-service employees of the government — firefighters, safety officers, and military personnel. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But why are the complaints not directed equally at that discriminatory practice? Those are all honorable callings, to be sure, but why are they more honorable than pastors and church youth leaders? If churches do their jobs well, you won’t need as many safety personnel.

Could the discriminatory nature of the complaints be due to the fact that public-service employees work for a government compelled through fear and legal jujitsu to function by the tenants of a secular faith?

I will fear no evil

We as a society are paralyzed by the fear of legal action.

  • Our schools quake in terror at the very mention of it — and fail to educate our children because of it.
  • Our churches cower at the mention of the IRS — and fail to speak the truth in love across all of culture.
  • Our businesses seek the path of least resistance in cases like this — and everyone loses what opportunity they had.

Fear always eliminates opportunity. Always.

The problem with whining

But I suspect there’s something deeper at work here psychologically in these situations. I suspect that at the heart of many such disputes is someone who just didn’t get their way. Someone got their feelings hurt. And we can’t have that. Not in a tolerant society. So they start to whine. (Trust me. I see how this works everyday with kids.)

Take this example from a similar case in Pennsylvania noted in the Fox News story:

A Pennsylvania atheist filed a grievance with the state’s Human Relations  Commission this summer after he learned that Prudhomme’s Lost Cajun Kitchen in  Columbia was offering a 10 percent discount on meals to people who brought their  church bulletin with them.

“I did this not out of spite, but out of a feeling against the prevailing  self-righteousness that stems from religion, particularly in Lancaster County,” John Wolff, a retired electrical engineer, told the  Intelligencer Journal  of his decision to go toe-to-toe with the restaurant.

“I don’t consider it an earthshaking affair, but in this area in particular,  we seem to have so many self-righteous religious people, so it just annoys  me.”

In that case, the restaurant’s owner refused to halt the promotion. And the  matter is still pending before the secular Pennsylvania commission. [emphasis mine]

In this instance, at least, the complaining person is honest about his motivations. He doesn’t like people of faith acting “self-righteous.” Good luck with the courts defining that one — without seeming self-righteous in the process.

But two can play this subjective game of verbal badminton. I say, “I don’t consider it an earth-shaking affair, but in this area in particular, we seem to have so many self-righteous secular people, so it just annoys me.”

Now what? We both can’t stand each other apparently. Are lawsuits supposed to follow? Come on.

Maybe we could all grow up and and sit down to eat lunch together. I’ll bring the church bulletin to save us all some dough. Maybe then we could have a dialogue about what’s best for freedom and our responsibility to our communities instead of resorting to nasty letters with imaginative legal claims. Maybe then we could have an understanding that not everyone always gets what they want, we’re not all entitled to all that someone else has, and that not all discrimination is illegal or even unethical.

Until then everybody in Little Rock should toss a few extra bucks in the plate Sunday. Looks like the cost for church groups to play at the water park just went up. Tell me how that’s not discrimination.

Do you think this is a case of the need for separation of church and state or an overreaction to a perfectly legit practice? Leave a comment with a click here to share your thoughts


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  • Hemant Mehta

    I look forward to hearing your defense of a “Whites Only” sign at this waterpark. Would that be ok?

    • Don’t be silly. Discrimination based on unbiblical thinking is sinful and should be vehemently opposed. Is there some evidence of such a sign at the park that you’re aware of that the national media missed?

      • So discrimination based on “Biblical thinking” is fine. Got it. Thanks.

        • You’re welcome. I didn’t write it. But I did welcome your comment.


    • That would be similar to comparing apples and zebras… A business absolutely has the right to offer discounts to some people and not others. I used to work in malls and always got discounts at the food court because of it. Why? Because those business wanted to encourage me to eat there for lunch! People who didn’t work at the mall didn’t get the same discount. Nobody complains that the discount is a form of discrimination. Many places offer senior discounts. Isn’t that just reversed ageism?

      As a business owner you have the right to offer discounts to whoever you want, or no discounts at all! This water park has the right to pull their youth group discount if they feel it is going to hurt business. Businesses exist to make money, so the only logical reason to offer a discount is to encourage more business. Again, those discounts can be for any reason they want, and nobody (secular kids groups, church youth groups, or even Gandhi) has the right to expect them.

      • Patrick

        Just as a matter of law, you’re incorrect. Federal law prohibits certain businesses (including hotels and restaurants) from discriminating on the basis of certain characteristics (race, religion, etc.). State laws expand these non-discrimination laws to additional businesses and extent the prohibition to different characteristics. If you want it to be the case that a business owner have the right to give discounts to whoever they want, then the only way to achieve that would be to repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the state law equivalents.

        • For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that the courts have interpreted the CRA of 1964 and Arkansas state laws to mean that the park cannot offer a discount to religious groups. Why then should they be permitted to offer a discount to some members of the community whose only dicriminating factor is that they are employees of an institution that has a secular religious position? Is that not itself a violation? Is this a case of those who make the laws can exempt themselves from the laws?

          Thanks for the comment by the way.

          • Patrick

            If the organization to which they are offering a discount is based on some notion of secularism, such as, for example, an atheist social group, then that would probably constitute price discrimination on the basis of religion. If the group, however, merely has no religious affiliation but does not based its membership on the absence of religion, I wouldn’t see that as discrimination on the basis of religion.

            But I’m having trouble picturing exactly what you mean — a discount to “employees of an institution that has a secular religious position.” So if the water park had a promotion giving a discount, say, to employees of CVS? I haven’t heard of such discounts, but I would have a hard time imagining how such a discount to CVS employees would discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion. That’s much different than saying “if you go to church, you pay a different price,” which is substantively what was going on here.

          • Patrick, I would argue that the government in place in our culture today takes a decidedly official secular religious position. Think of what is permitted to be taught in government schools due to a misinterpreatation of the First Amendment. We likely disagree on that point. Governments are never neutral with respect to religion nor can they be free from religion. They function based on a system of beliefs about authority, morality, and the nature of the universe — all of which are inextricably intertwined with faith and beliefs about the divine — or absence thereof. That does not mean that there cannot be or should not be equal protection for all the pracitce of all faiths. Let’s just acknowledge that all — even governments — have a faith position instead of pretending that they don’t.

            My point is simply that it is impossible to not be religious. If the courts have ruled that the CRA applies here then it is what it is. I don’t have to agree that it is right although I do confess I see the slippery slope that could develop.

            I would encourgae the park to give a discount to all people of faith — and then give it to everyone to make the point that all of us are people of faith.

            But maybe I’m all wet. Thanks!

  • Maryanne Hussar

    Why should this be a church/state separation issue? A privately owned business should be able to give discounts to whomever they want. Unless the business is breaking a law, such as in the scenario suggested by Mr. Mehta, the state should not enter into the discussion at all.

  • lol mahmood

    I wonder what would have happened if a Muslim youth group had asked for the same discount. Or how about a Wiccan group?

    All the park had to do to comply with the law is offer the same discount to any non-profit, regardless of religious affiliation. It chose instead to withdraw the discount. You can’t blame the non-religious group for fighting for equality; if the park restricted such an offer to atheist groups, would church groups just accept the inequality?

    • What law is it exactly with which they should have complied?

      • Patrick

        The laws vary from state to state. Most state have laws prohibiting certain categories of private businesses from discriminating based on certain characteristics — race, religion, sex, etc. The state laws vary as to (i) which types of businesses are covered; and (ii) what characteristics such businesses may not use as a basis for discrimination. Many states even have specific price discrimination statutes prohibiting certain businesses from charging different prices to people on the basis of race, religion, etc. Of course, there is federal law too (the Civil Rights Act of 1964), but I’m not sure if that law would apply to water parks (it applies to hotels and restaurants, though).

        So the laws don’t prohibit all discrimination against any group, but rather, target specific types of businesses and discrimination on the basis of specific characteristics. This is why it would violate federal law for a hotel to charge different prices to different races, but it would not violate federal law for restaurants to give a discount to seniors.

  • This is really simple if you just do some homework. We are a nation that is governed by laws. You should look them up sometime.

    The Civil Rights Act reads: “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation . . . without discrimination on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.” 42 U.S.C. §2000a(a)

    • But if the discount is offered equally to all “churches” so defined, why would that be a violation of the law? Ths case invovled a non-church group demanding the same discoutn. unless, ofc oruse, they are acknowledging that secularism is in itself a religion.

      • Dean

        ‘But if the discount is offered equally to all “churches” so defined, why would that be a violation of the law? Ths case invovled a non-church group demanding the same discoutn. unless, ofc oruse, they are acknowledging that secularism is in itself a religion.’

        No, they are acknowledging that secularism is a religious position, Bill. By making an offer open to religionists only it is discriminatory against those who do not practice a religion. It is therefore religious discrimination under the CRA, as quoted above by David Williamson.

  • Rosemary Lyndall Wemm

    Actually, it seems very discriminatory to me to offer discounts for groups that pay no taxes. They are already advantaged, so why advantage them even more? That seems grossly unfair.
    It also seem immoral to grant special price privileges to groups that use group outings of this nature to promote and market various forms of prejudice and ignorance: out-group hatred, sexism, racism, sexual preference-ism, factual suppression, stances that promote are anti–higher, anti-science, anti-neutral secularism, anti-critical thinking and the uncritical acceptance of ideas based entirely on subjective feelings and hearsay evidence , plus a whole heap of other insidiously evil social propaganda. Moreover, these groups have a sordid history of deliberately harboring sexual criminals and glorifying the behavior of of those who torture bodies and minds and inflict mental and physical anguish as a means of disseminating their beliefs.

  • CJ Brooks

    “There is no freedom of religion without freedom from religion.” The US Courts have repeatedly interpreted the Establishment Clause to include equal protection of those that expressly claim no religion.

    • Thanks! But no one is being denied access to the park. What if they had sent a coupon to area churches offering a discount to all coupon holders with no mention of their church status? Would they still be required to give the discount to everyone who asked?

      • CJ Brooks

        But we’re not discussing access to the park, or denial of access to said park. We are discussing a lack of equal treatment (under the law) with regards to issuing a coupon. You’ll find these same concerns regarding radio contests, state lotteries, raffle drawings, sweepstakes, and any other promotional ideas a company uses.

        And, to your question, yes, they would still be required to give the discount to everyone who asked. The fundamental issue of this entire controversy is the law. Whatever the ethics, morality, or preference of the owner of the water park are, it makes no difference when it comes to his/her relationship with the public, specifically when it comes to the role of religion.