Legal group challenges Cape May’s papal broadcast plans

Legal group challenges Cape May’s papal broadcast plans

Posted: Saturday, September 12, 2015 9:15 am Press of Atlantic City

Original Content – NICOLE LEONARD Staff Writer

CAPE MAY — The scheduled broadcast of a papal mass at the Cape May Convention Hall has hit some bumps in the road.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an education and legal group based in Washington, D.C., told Cape May officials Thursday that the city’s co-sponsorship of a Sept. 27 broadcast event violates the U.S. Constitution and the group will file a lawsuit if the city proceeds with its original plans.

“We haven’t seen any reports of any other city planning to live stream a papal event,” said Alex Luchenitser, the group’s associate legal director. “We’ve received various other complaints relating to the pope’s visit, but they concern other issues. This is the most egregious violation that’s been brought to our attention so far.”

Cape May Mayor Edward J. Mahaney Jr. told the Press in August that the city would organize a telecast of Pope Francis’ public mass in Philadelphia during his visit to the United States for locals or visitors who could not attend.

The free ticketed event was to start at 4 p.m. and the livestream would be shown on a large, ceiling-mounted screen. Mahaney said a commercial television station in Philadelphia would provide the telecast through a Comcast connection.

The city organized the event along with the Cape May Ministerium, a group of clergy members representing churches of different denominations in the greater Cape May area.

Luchenitser said the co-sponsorship violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits governmental bodies from taking any action that communications a message of endorsement of religion. Americans United recommended the city disassociated itself entirely from the event.

“They shouldn’t be sponsoring religious events, he said. “For them to proceed, this needs to be privatized.”

Anthony Monzo, Cape May’s attorney, said he and city officials will discuss ways in which the organization of the event can be amended to comply with the restrictions and still provide a free broadcast at the convention hall.

“It’s a great opportunity for the city of Cape May to showcase itself,” he said. “With a world leader as renowned as the pope less than 100 miles of away, it’s the perfect opportunity for Cape May to really get involved to some extent. Not as a sponsor, but make that available to people who can’t attend in person.”

In a letter to Cape May officials, Americans United also recommended that the city must charge organizers the same rental rates at the convention hall that would normally apply to events within the venue, including admission fees. Luchenitser said this ensures that the event is not using taxpayer money to fund a religious event.

However, Monzo said in the past the city has waived charges at Convention Hall for similar nonprofit organizations that held education and informational events at the venue, regardless of religious affiliation.

“He has indicated that he’ll send a letter listing events when they haven’t charged other nonprofits,” Luchenitser said. “If we examine that list and conclude it’s reasonably similar to this type of event, we can satisfy on the rental issue.”

Mahaney said while details have not yet been finalized, a live broadcast of the papal mass will happen in Cape May.

He said this was just a small obstacle. “We’re planning to proceed with a good event,” he said.

According to Luchenitser and Monzo, both are looking for an outcome that doesn’t involve litigation.

“It sounds like at least there’s a good chance this will be resolved amicably if the city attorney is able to follow through, and if the city takes his advice,” Luchenitser said.

Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard