In denying a permit to hold a church service at a popular Delaware oceanside location, the Rehoboth Beach city manager described his actions as a “separation of church and state.” The pastor who applied for the permit and later preached an Independence Day message on the sands of the same beach saw it another way, calling the action one of fear and suppression.
The Rev. Robert Dekker, pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Lewes, Del., sought a permit in May for the use of the bandstand at Rehoboth Beach in Sussex County to provide early-morning services on Sundays for eight weeks in June and July. New Covenant is a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Rehoboth Beach, with a population of a little more than 1,300, sees an explosion of people flocking to its shores in the summer as tourists from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., make their way to the popular town located on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. The number of people packing the small town and beach swells to about 25,000 during the summer months.
An increased traffic flow in the town can make travel difficult, so Dekker wanted to offer services at the public beach just south of Lewes to allow people a way to conveniently attend church, something he said other pastors in nearby towns have been doing. He also noted that a sunrise service is held on the beach each year at Easter.
The response he received was not what he expected.
Rehoboth Beach City Manager Greg Ferrese denied the request to hold eight weeks of early-morning services at the beach made by Dekker. Ferrese chose to deny Dekker’s request under the guise of separation of church and state, but the decision actually precluded the church’s freedom of religion and freedom of assembly found in the First Amendment.
Dekker reported that he received an email from Ferrese that read, “I am so sorry to inform you that I cannot grant your request to have church services on the public beach in Rehoboth. I cannot mix church and state. I trust you understand. Wishing you the very best.”
“When you’re dealing with church and public property, you have to be careful,” Ferrese told the Cape Gazette. “We’re really in a no-win situation.”
Ferrese said the church requested use of the beach and noted that city policy traditionally has been not to allow religious demonstrations on public beaches, on the grounds of separation of church and state, but also because the city does not want to offend visitors who may not agree with such a service. He also said allowing one church to do so would lead to similar requests from numerous other churches.
“I was absolutely disappointed with the city manager, but I understand why he took the action he did. He was afraid of lawsuits,” Dekker said. “What we did was not in protest of that denial but as a celebration of our freedom.”
Ferrese granted permission for a one-time event on July 4 to “celebrate freedom on our nation’s birthday” with a rally to include “music, prayer, testimony and preaching,” after the pastor sought another permit.
The rally was the brainchild of Christian Hudson, who attended New Covenant and was moved by a message Dekker preached regarding Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego being cast into the fiery furnace. He wanted others to hear such a message and asked Dekker to speak.
So, Dekker took to the beach on Independence Day, preaching a sermon by the shore that he titled “Line in the Sand.” More than 1,500 people gathered to hear the sermon, prayers and music as America celebrated its freedoms.
Some of those attending liked the idea, noting the rally was about freedom of speech and freedom of religion, and people have the right to say what they want.
Others who turned out to enjoy a day of fun and sun on the shore thought the preaching was a little much and that it was an inappropriate setting for a church service, becoming a hindrance to their day, Delmarva news station WBOC reported.
“There was some backlash but nothing substantive. I guess they don’t want anyone to say something that might make them feel awkward so they wanted to keep us quiet and not say anything outside our church,” Dekker said. “I wanted to stir an understanding that we live in a country where the Gospel can be proclaimed. The sentiment was almost universal by those attending that we have a right to do this.
“It just seemed to be very appropriate. People we saw on the beach were very pleased. There was no hostility. People were happy there was something worth celebrating. The Gospel is good to hear. People were encouraged and blessed by it. It’s good news, words of eternal life.”
He added that he was following through on Paul’s directive in 2 Timothy 4:2 when he issues the charge to “be prepared in season and out of season” to preach the Word. Dekker said it definitely was the “season” to preach a message of freedom based on the July 4th holiday, summer vacation time and the larger crowd gathered at the beach to hear the Word of God.
Dekker gave his explanation for holding the rally when he called in to the Glenn Beck radio program on July 1.
Dekker told Beck his goal as a pastor is to “communicate the Gospel by word and deed to ourselves and to our neighbors that the wonders of God’s grace in Christ may be known.”
Noting he is not comfortable with the language of tyranny and the language of defiance, Dekker felt his congregation was denied the right to assemble on the beach for Sunday services for no apparent reason.
He said the idea of being defiant is not the message of the Gospel, adding that the message he preached of drawing a line in the sand came from the text where Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground twice in making a point to the Pharisees and teachers of the law who brought an adulterous woman before Him (John 8:3-11, NIV). No one knows what Jesus wrote, but He got His point across.
“We celebrated freedom and talked about a freedom better than anything the government can provide us,” Dekker said. “We demonstrated we have a liberty to do what we did, and what a joy as Americans to be able to proclaim the Gospel. It was exercising the liberties that were secured for us so long ago.
“What I preached was the message of true freedom from John 8, the liberty we have in Christ that allows people to be free from condemnation.”
The pastor’s hunch is that the permit was denied to avoid any controversy or potentially hostile situations that may have developed, yet he was steadfast in his resolve to spread God’s Word, as he shared with Beck.
“I just believe as a pastor that one of the best things we can do for southern Delaware as well as for the U.S., even for the world is that when you preach the Good News that there is forgiveness, that there is hope, not by works of righteousness which we have done but according to God’s mercy He saves us,” Dekker told Beck.
Dekker added that the exposure given to the permit denial and subsequent freedom rally has served as a platform to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
“I got to share the Gospel with the world and communicate the Word of Jesus Christ. That’s the reason we’re here. Isn’t that the Great Commission?” he asked.
While Dekker preached the message at the freedom rally, it was not sponsored or endorsed by his church, even though the event was consistent with its mission statement. New Covenant Presbyterian Church’s mission, found on its web site, is to “meet with God in worship, a place where you can be equipped to do the things that God has prepared for us to be doing (our purpose in life).” As Dekker said, it’s a matter of communicating the Gospel by word and deed, as expressed in Romans 1: 16, which reads, “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (NIV)
That’s what Dekker did as he metaphorically drew a line in the sand at Rehoboth Beach, keenly aware that God is in control of what has happened and what will take place as a result of his willingness to be courageous enough to boldly share the Gospel.
“This is God’s doing. If we’re going to communicate the Gospel, we can’t do it by hiding it under a bushel or hiding it underground,” Dekker said. “Freedom is not by revolution but by revelation, holding up the Word of God. Freedom comes when the Gospel is revealed to you. Maybe God can use this meager effort to empower Christians to proclaim the good news to all people.”