Aldermen deny request for ongoing use of St. Stephens

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 9, 2016

St. Stephens

Aldermen deny request for ongoing use of St. Stephens

By John Howell
City officials during their August 2 meeting voted unanimously to deny a request by Shirley Coffey for regular  use of the St. Stephens Episcopal Church building on the second, fourth and fifth Sundays.

Coffey had asked, during the July 19 meeting, to be allowed to use the building for regular church services. Aldermen had voted to take it under advisement. Coffey did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, but consideration of her request brought the elected officials and assistant City Attorney Colmon Mitchell to a decision to develop a policy for the church building’s use.
After the numbers of local Episcopal congregants in Batesville dwindled after World War II, the denomination deeded the building to the city in 1970.

“They reserved the right to use it for their services; so that’s a condition of the city’s ownership of the property, so that would have no bearing on any decision y’all make in the future,” Mitchell said.

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“Other than allow somebody to use it a lot and here they (Episcopals) come along and need to use it and it’s taken,” Alderman Teddy Morrow said.

“Y’all need to come up with a policy for use of city facilities; like the one you’ve got at the civic center,” the attorney said. “Uses of other city facilities has been an oral policy, a verbal policy that you have a feel for what it is, but it’s not in writing. I think we need one in writing.

“The AG’s (state Attorney General) office says that you can let people use your facilities as long as you have a uniform policy that’s applied consistently. You have to charge some sort of fee, not to make a profit but to offset the city’s cost for utilities, janitorial services, anything like that,” Mitchell continued.

The City officials and their attorney’s discussion included questions about a violation of the establishment of religion clause of the U.S. Constitution and requests for occasional use of the facility versus regular use.

“I wouldn’t be against giving her a one-time use,” Alderman Stan Harrison said of Coffey’s request.

“Any extended use lease has the potential to interfere with their (Episcopals’) ability to exercise their right within the original agreement,” Nabors said.

“I think y’all have told me what we need to know,” Mayor Jerry Autrey said.

With their unanimous vote, aldermen continued the present policy of having people who seek use of the facility make their request to the city board.

Rev. Chris Robinson of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford, contacted by phone last Wednesday, told The Panolian that he meets with local Episcopal worshipers, usually once each month on a mutually convenient Sunday.