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You can assemble outside Augusta after all

You can assemble outside Augusta after all
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In 2003, Martha Burk (left) led a rally about a half-mile from Augusta National Golf Club to protest …

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Shane Brown of The River at Tampa Bay Church in Florida is standing on a small patch of gravel alongside Berckmans Road here.

Behind him is the vast grass parking areas used by patrons of the Masters. On the other side of the street is Gate 6 of Augusta National Golf Club. His location allows a steady stream of people to read his sign or hear his voice about obeying scripture and avoiding eternal damnation. Most just walk by, others take a pamphlet and a few argue. There are half a dozen Richmond County Sheriff’s deputies and Augusta police officers directing traffic and allowing Brown, as well as a couple other street preachers, to do their thing.

“I’m here for the souls,” Brown said. “I’m here to share the good news with them.”

The scene is neither unique nor particularly interesting except when you consider the location.

Wasn’t it just eight years ago that the National Council of Women’s Organizations, led by Martha Burk, was banned from assembling near Augusta National when protesting the club’s lack of female members?

Back in 2003 the Richmond County Sheriff, citing safety concerns, relegated the NCWO to a park nearly half a mile from Augusta National’s main gate. Burk said it was an attempt to put the protest out of sight. A federal judge agreed with the sheriff. In what can only be called a brilliantly diabolic move, the county also gave permits to the area to three other organizations – an anti-Burk website, a splinter group of the Ku Klux Klan and an organization called “People Against Ridiculous Protests.”

The NCWO’s event that day was overwhelmed by absurdity – also in attendance was a crossdresser, an Elvis impersonator and the Imperial Wizard of the American White Knights, who nonetheless said he was a big fan of Tiger Woods. One guy, who claimed to the media his name was “Heywood Jablowme” (over 100 newspapers were naïve enough to actually print it) stood in front of Burk with a sign that read “Make Me Dinner.”

You don’t hear too much about Augusta National’s membership policies anymore.

This column isn’t here to take a side in that debate or even rehash that debate. Just as it isn’t here to take a side on Shane Brown’s message or any other involving religion, the Bible or whether or not any Masters patron needs to atone for the “smoke of their torment.”

It’s simply to wonder: what gives? How exactly is one group of sign-waving, message-shouting people allowed to stand across from the course and another not?

Neither Brown nor Larry Craft of a Rochester, N.Y., church said they had a permit to be there. They said they didn’t need it. Craft said he’s had problems before when he's set up close to the main gate of Augusta National on Washington Road, but nothing since moving around the corner to Berckmans.

He's a veteran of the process, regularly standing outside of major events across the country and preaching. He said the general rule of thumb is that “33 ½ feet” from the yellow line in the center of the street is public property.

“It’s public domain,” Craft said. “Our forefathers gave their blood to allow us the freedom of speech. I have a good relationship with the police.”

Said Brown, “We’re exercising our amendment rights. Sometimes (the police) say, ‘back up a little’ but that’s just for safety. So far, nobody has said anything to us.”

And if the public doesn’t complain, they won’t.

“As long as it’s not a problem, it’s not a problem,” Major Richard Weaver of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Department said. “If it becomes a problem traffic-wise or with public safety, then we would address it. We haven’t received a single complaint.”

The preachers weren’t familiar with the Burk protest in 2003. These guys have no problem with Augusta National or golf in general – “there might be golf in heaven,” Brown noted. They’ll preach anywhere – concerts, football games, county fairs.

When told that the NCWO was sent to a specific spot away from the course they said it isn’t that uncommon for various local governments to create “staging areas.” Like Burk, they despise such tactics because it keeps them from people who might hear their message.

“It’s like deep sea fishing, I’m trying to get the fish finder out,” Brown said.

Neither Burk nor the NCWO responded to requests for comment – an automated response to Burk’s email address stated she’d be unavailable until May 3. The issue may be in the NCWO's request in 2003 to seek, according to the New York Times, a permit for “24 protesters at the club's front gate and 200 more protesters across Washington Road.”

Then-Sheriff Ronnie Strength denied the request by stating: “The sheer numbers expected by you, as well as other applicants for permits, would render inadequate the area requested by you.

“Motorists using Washington Road would be placed at risk because of being distracted by protest demonstrations. Attempting to accommodate all groups in such limited space would in my opinion lead to an unreasonable disturbance of the peace. We have the right and obligation to balance public safety issues with freedom of speech issues.”

And that was that, the NCWO protest was doomed to history.

“We’re only concerned with public safety,” Major Weaver said Friday.

Maybe the NCWO should’ve limited its numbers to one or two people. Apparently it could still try.

“We’d welcome them,” Brown said, just steps from Augusta National's hallowed grounds. “There’s room here.”