City lifts ban on Bible program

Says group can use Roxbury facility

By Sydney Lupkin
Globe Correspondent / June 16, 2010

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A children’s Bible study group can return to class in the Roxbury community center that banned religious study, reversing a decision that Christian rights lawyers called unconstitutional and Boston officials acknowledged was an error in enforcement.

“Calvary Kidz’’ Bible study, which serves children ages 5 to 12, had been meeting in the Thomas L. Johnson Community Center for two years when an official told them they had to cut out the religious content of their program to comply with city policy, said Greg Brace, who oversees the program and is an assistant pastor at Calvary in the City.

Stephanie Cole, wife of the pastor of Calvary in the City, said she had been sad to see the children lose part of the program.

“We’re very excited that Boston agreed it was unconstitutional,’’ Cole said. “Those kids live in the housing projects. They see so much around them that is fearful and discouraging . . . This way, we can get the church to them.’’

In a four-page letter dated April 28, officials from the Alliance Defense Fund warned city officials that the ban was discriminatory and violated the First Amendment, said Joel Oster, an attorney for the national Christian rights group. After the letter went unanswered for more than a month, the alliance threatened to sue, he said.

“Luckily, we didn’t have to file a suit,’’ Oster said. “We’re very thankful that the City of Boston — even if it was at the 11th hour — changed this policy.’’

However, an official from Boston Centers for Youth and Families, which runs 46 community centers in the area, said there was no policy to reverse.

“There was an error conducted on the part of our community center,’’ said Sandra Holden, agency spokeswoman, adding that an internal investigation is underway. Boston Centers for Youth and Families’ “administrative offices were surprised that this action was taken with the Calvary Kidz program. We took immediate steps to correct any miscommunication.’’

According to the complaint that the alliance threatened to file, one of the center’s managers told Calvary Kidz officials about the policy and said her orders came from an agency supervisor.

Judy Mercer, whom Calvary Kidz officials identified as the person who relayed the policy, declined to comment yesterday.

Brace said he had not known that the matter was a miscommunication and not a policy.

“It was verbally told to us that it was a policy,’’ he said.

Oster said policies and miscommunications about where religious groups can meet crop up nationwide.

“You cannot restrict access to a public meeting room based on religious speech,’’ Oster said. “We are glad at the end of the day that they changed this policy.’’

Sydney Lupkin can be reached at

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