When it comes to who can speak from the pulpit, separation of church and state may compel the government to steer clear of what is said, but a current St. Mary's County case illustrates that the state of Maryland very much wants to be involved with who has access to the speaker's stand.
State officials have ruled that the St. Mary's Church of Christ must comply with strict Maryland regulations and provide a ramp -- access for the disabled -- to the pulpit of its new $963,000, 11,880-square-foot church under construction in the town of California.
Although the rest of the new building complies with federal and state access requirements, the church recently sought a waiver to avoid building a ramp to the pulpit. The Rev. LeRoy Finto, church pastor, said only he and perhaps an occasional guest speaker would need access to the pulpit, noting that "at present it's not a factor."
The Maryland Codes Administration, a state body that enforces regulations on access for the disabled, denied the wavier early this month. For now, it appears the church will have to spend an additional $15,000 to build the ramp.
"There was no compelling reason to grant the waiver," said Fran Counihan, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development, of which the Codes Administration is a part.
"It's new construction, and the cost of a ramp would certainly not be a hardship or prohibitive. So it was in that light that [the waiver] was denied," Counihan said.
Churches are exempted from compliance with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, said Harry Knight, permits coordinator for the St. Mary's Department of Planning and Zoning. However, they still must meet Maryland state requirements, which in some cases are more strict.
In recent years, many churches have been complying anyway as their congregations age. Several have begun voluntarily retrofitting their buildings to provide access, Knight said. The modifications have included wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and outdoor ramps and lifts, he said.
Despite the state's stricter requirements, in Knight's experience churches that have sought waivers from the state usually have received them, he said. Knight, whose department did not object to the waiver, said news that the Church of Christ request had been denied came as a surprise to him and church officials.
"My understanding is, this has been a commonly granted waiver. Why they denied it I don't know," Finto said.
Counihan said her department receives many requests for waivers on the issue of accessibility. "I'm not aware that churches are dealt with any differently," she said.
Finto said the church has every intention of complying with the state's ruling, although he disagrees with Counihan's decision that the added cost of the ramp would present no financial hardship. "We're on a shoestring," Finto said of the church's budget.
"We're Christians first. We're going to handle it in a Christlike way. If that's what they've asked us to do, we will work towards accommodating it," he said.
The original Church of Christ in Lexington Park was built in 1955 on Langley Road. More than a year ago, the church sold the one-story brick building to another congregation, and this summer construction began on the new church on St. Andrew's Church Road, near Maryland Route 235.
Members raised half of the cost of the new church and will finance the rest, Finto said.