Christian concert in Draper on again despite lawsuit threat
A day after canceling a Christian concert because of a threatened lawsuit, the Draper mayor and City Council decided Wednesday to hold the show as planned after all.
Their decision followed criticism from a Utah evangelical group that equated scrapping the concert to an assault on religious liberty. But Draper Councilman Troy Walker said the increased attention didn't play into the city's about-face.
"As we thought about it and analyzed it, we don't feel like we're promoting a religion," Walker said. "We feel like we're putting on a performance like we do every summer."
Still, questions remain about the legality of Draper's decision to put down a $21,500 deposit for the event money the city expects to recoup through ticket sales.
The council initially decided in a closed-door portion of its meeting Tuesday to cancel the July 24 concert by famed Christian artist Michael W. Smith planned for the Draper Amphitheater. At the time, the council made that decision because it didn't want to risk a lawsuit, Walker said.
Draper resident Todd Ouzts had been threatening legal action if the city moved forward with the event titled "Wonder, Worship and Glory." Ouzts said he filed a complaint Monday with the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah.
"I do believe the cause of helping soldiers and their families is a noble one," Ouzts said in a statement Wednesday, referring to the concert promoter's intention to use profits to support work with wounded soldiers. "But when that cause is conflated with prayer and worship, it must properly remain in church or on private propertyâ not in the public's backyard."
He said the promoter has attempted to vilify him as "an 'atheist' as if that is somehow unpatriotic." He went on to say that his religious beliefs are a personal matter. He said he's prepared to sue if the show goes on.
But Walker said Draper leaders no longer will let that deter them.
"If we get sued," Walker said, "we're going to defend it, because I don't think we've done a dang thing wrong or illegal."
The Rev. Gregory Johnson, president of the Standing Together Ministries coalition of evangelical churches across the Wasatch Front, also defended Draper. When the city initially pulled out, Johnson said, it seemed like a violation of religious liberties and discrimination.
"It just feels like a big win for everybody who believes in the rights of all people to have free access to public places," said Johnson, who is also a member of the advisory board to Warrior Worship Ministries, the nonprofit organization acting as the concert promoter.
Even singer Smith weighed in Wednesday.
"It's absurd," Smith said of the idea that the city would ditch the show because of a threat from one person. "It's the craziest thing I've ever heard of."
Smith said anyone should be allowed to play the amphitheater and giving in to complaints from one individual would set an unfortunate precedent. He said the event will include worship songs but also pop music.
Some remained skeptical of the concert, largely because of the upfront money spent by the city to host it, though Walker said the city expects to get that cash through ticket sales. Johnson said, so far, more than 700 tickets have been sold.
Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard said cities legally can rent space to anyone, including religious groups, as long as they ensure equal access.
But if a city participates in or sponsors a religious event, he said, that can be problematic. It's difficult, he added, to comment on the Draper concert, not having seen the contract, but the deposit could raise constitutional questions.
"They are essentially loaning money to the promoters of this concert, and the promoters of this concert are clearly a religiously oriented group who are going to put on a religiously oriented program," Barnard said. "The city is putting their money, taxpayer money, on the line and though they fully expect to get it back, there's also a chance they won't."
Walker said it's a practice the city has done for other amphitheater events.
"We obviously want to be judicious with the taxpayers' money and we feel like we are," Walker said. " ... This is just part of our summer program."
But Dan Ellis, president of Atheists of Utah, doubts the legality of Draper's connection to the concert.
"It's unfortunate that taxpayers' money is going toward funding a religious event," he said. "I think that's a clear violation of the separation of church and state."
Evelin Damian, director of the Utah Coalition of Reason, which facilitates communication between nontheistic groups, including atheists, said there's a fine line on church-state issues.
"You could argue for both sides," Damian said, "but personally, I think the money that went into it, I think the city shouldn't have done that."
P The concert by Christian singer Michael W. Smith is July 24 at 7:30 p.m. at the Draper Amphitheater. For tickets, visit draperamphitheater.com.