A tiny Colorado town has been plunged into a national debate after stopping a church from using its amphitheater for Sunday prayers.

Town officials in Dillon blocked all non-town sponsored groups from using the space - including Dillon Community Church which had held events there for 42 years - after being inundated with rental requests. 

The decision has catapulted the 1,000-person town to the center of a debate over worship in public facilities.

Pressure groups on both sides are threatening lawsuits, with some demanding the Church be given special dispensation to gather, while others slam the preferential access as 'Christian privilege'. 

Town manager Nathan Johnson told The Denver Post: 'There needs to be a separation of church and state. We cannot favor one denomination over another.'

The amphitheater was built in 1993 and renovated to become a top of the range venue in 2018, with views over the water to the mountains beyond. 

Dillon Community Church have hosted their worship events there for decades, paying an annual $1,100 rental fee and drawing in over 300 people a week.

Then, earlier this year, other groups including a synagogue and Native American tribes asked the council to use the space. 

Johnson told The Post: 'Everybody is attracted to the lake, the natural beauty of the lake.' 

The council can't accept everyone, he said, and they had to place the other groups on 'hold': 'Now with the popularity of the venue we have more and more people reaching out. Everybody wants to be down there.'

The issue, he said, is that 'an expectation has been set' by allowing the Church to use the space for their events. 

He added: 'We haven’t told anyone ‘no’ – at least that I’m aware of. 

'We want to have clear and definitive direction from the town council on what is allowed and not allowed in this setting.' 

'If we are going to open up the amphitheater, we have to open it up for everybody.'

In an original meeting on the issue, on June 11, the council voted 5-1 to grant the Church special access to the site. 

But after public backlash derided 'Christian privilege' and Dillon’s Denver-based contract attorney Kathleen Kelly resigned over the decision, the council were forced to backtrack. 

Now they have temporarily blocked all third-party access - including the church - while they determine a legally defensible usage policy. 

Former council member Tim Westerberg slammed what he sees as political tactics from the council, saying: 'They don’t seem to care about what the Constitution says. 

'It’s just damn the torpedoes full speed away, bulldoze ahead our agenda.' 

Church members have rallied in response to the council's decision, advocating for access for all religious groups.

Church representative Wendy Myers said: 'Dillon Community Church should be grandfathered into whatever contract. They’ve been here for over 40 years.

'It attracts an incredible number of our visitors who come to the county every single summer and love coming to church.'

The council now has to treat carefully to avoid potential lawsuits on both sides. 

Madeline Ziegler, staff attorney for the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, told The Post that if town officials have excluded any religious groups, members of that group could file a civil rights lawsuit. 

She said the town's historic preferential treatment had sent 'a signal to the town residents that their government prefers Christianity and that Christians will be treated better than other people in this town. 

'That’s not a message that the people’s representatives should be allowed to send.'

On the other side, Lea Patterson from the Texas-based First Liberty Institute urged the council to allow the church access to avoid a lawsuit. contacted the Town Manager and Dillon Community Church for comment.

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2024-06-24T21:00:23Z dg43tfdfdgfd