3/8/19 Editor’s note: Some content was removed because it was from a private email and did not have permission to be printed.
Submitted by Daron A. Case, Esq.
There are several misconceptions circulating about the church directory sign that was removed from Spreckels Park last week. A timeline may help to clear things up.
The church directory sign was originally installed at Spreckels Park in the late ‘60s, so it’s been around for approximately 50 years. I am 47 years old, and the sign has been around as long as I can remember. I grew up in Coronado, so to me the sign was not about religion or church vs. state… it served a secular purpose, and it’s about preserving what’s left of the town I grew up in.
Spreckels Park was designated historic via Coronado City Council Resolution No. 8029 on November 16, 2004. This is relevant as any significant alteration of a historic resource must first be approved by the Historic Resource Commission (HRC) pursuant to Chapter 70.20 of the Municipal Code. Chair of the HRC Susan Keith went before City Council on December 4, 2018 to ask whether City Council is above the law, as pursuant to Coronado Municipal Code section 84.20.080, any changes or alterations to a historic resource first requires a historic resource alteration permit to be obtained from the City and reviewed by the HRC. This was not done for the removal of the church directory sign. The City Attorney replied to Ms. Keith and said the HRC is subordinate to City Council, and the City Council has final say.
In late 2017, a college student named Ryan Meoni who graduated from CHS sent an email to the City asking whether the word “church” on the church directory sign should be changed to “religion” to be more inclusive of different faiths, as synagogues, mosques and temples may not wish to be called a “church.” The City did not reply to Mr. Meoni, so he referred the matter to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Mr. Meoni never asked for, nor wanted, the sign to be removed.
On January 19th, 2018, FFRF attorney Elizabeth Cavell sent a public records request (PRR) to the Coronado City Clerk noting that the church directory sign “raises constitutional concerns under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,” and asking for information about the sign including a guideline for groups to be included on the sign and any applications for inclusion on the sign, etc. The City responded within 10 days that they had no responsive documents to the PRR. Ms. Cavell did not threaten nor mention litigation in her PRR. There was no subsequent correspondence between the City and Ms. Cavell.
On February 6th, 2018, the Coronado City Council had a closed session with item titled “Anticipated Litigation” in which they decided to remove the church directory sign. I subsequently made a PRR for information related to this closed City Council session including the action item and how Council voted. The City would not disclose any information from this closed session.
On Tuesday, February 13th, 2018, according to a Coronado City employee (who shall remain confidential), staff in the public services department were given instructions by the director to remove the church directory sign on Friday of that week.
On Wednesday, February 14, 2018, the City employee contacted me to let me know the City was planning to remove the church directory Friday “on the down-low,” and I made the following post on social media: “It has come to my attention the City will be removing this church directory from Spreckels Park on the down-low this Friday without any public notice or feedback. This directory has been at Spreckels for as long as I can remember and may have some local significance, historical or otherwise. Have local churches been notified? Your thoughts?”
On Thursday, February 15, 2018, Coronado Mayor Richard Bailey released a public statement that the City will be removing the church directory “to avoid potential First Amendment legal challenges.” Mayor Bailey also stated: “The Coronado Council of Churches is aware this is occurring, and they support the City’s efforts.” I promptly called Stephen Mather, President of the Council of Churches, who said he had just received an email that week from the City about the sign, but he didn’t quite understand what it was all about, and he had not yet communicated the email to any other churches.
On Friday, February 16, 2018, Stephen Mather sent a letter to all the churches in the Council of Churches about an upcoming meeting on Wednesday, February 21, 2018 at 2pm with City Manager Blair King to learn what the City is doing about the church directory sign. On this same day, Ryan Meoni reached out to me via social media and sent me an email with the PRR from FFRF, which I released on social media.
On Sunday, February 18, 2018, attorney Charles LiMandri from the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund sent an email to Mayor Bailey and Coronado City Attorney Johanna Canlas offering to represent the City of Coronado pro bono against any litigation related to the church directory. What LiMandri did not understand at the time is that no litigation was ever filed, threatened or even mentioned.
On Tuesday, February 20, 2018, I called FFRF attorney Elizabeth Cavell to ask her about the PRR she submitted to the City of Coronado. Ms. Cavell explained if the City had an open guideline or application process for religious groups to be included on the sign, then it would likely not present a problem under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Her PRR merely asked for information including a guideline or application for group inclusion on the sign. I asked whether FFRF intended to file a lawsuit. Ms. Cavell refused to use the word “lawsuit” or even discuss the possibility of litigation… she said she never threatened nor mentioned litigation, but only asked for information about the sign at the request of a Coronado resident. I was very surprised to learn from Ms. Cavell that nobody from the City had bothered to call her as I had.
On Wednesday, February 21, 2018, the Council of Churches met with City Manager Blair King to learn what the “City’s efforts” entailed with respect to the church directory sign. Mr. King explained the City could be engaged in protracted, expensive and unwinnable litigation if the sign were not removed, and encouraged the Council of Churches to support the City’s efforts to remove the sign and replace it with a community directory that includes both religious and civic organizations.
On Friday, February 23, 2018, Steven Mather sent an email to City Manager King articulating several concerns about the removal of the church directory sign, and explained the Council of Churches was still in deliberation, but they would likely issue a public statement the following week.
On Friday, March 2, 2018, the Council of Churches finally approved a public statement that: “The Coronado Council of Churches supports the efforts of the City of Coronado to address questions of signage. We agree it would be unfortunate to have the city involved with prolonged litigation over the Church Directory sign.” Note this statement is weeks after the City’s public statement of 2/15/18 that “The Council of Churches is aware this is occurring, and they support the City’s efforts.”
Wednesday, February 27, 2019 – the church directory was removed from Spreckels Park.
As of Friday, March 1, 2019 – the church directory is dismantled and sitting outside in a storage yard in town. It is unclear whether the City has plans for the church directory sign that has historical and sentimental value for many residents.
Daron A. Case, Esq.