Teachings of the Catholic faith, including a controversial “baby in a bag” pro-life display, will be part of the 2014 Walworth County Fair under terms of an agreement reached recently between fair officials and an Illinois-based Catholic evangelical group.
Peter’s Net, a non-profit group dedicated to spreading knowledge of the Catholic faith, will bring its message to the Walworth County Fair for the second consecutive year after fair officials initially refused the group’s application to renew and reserve an informational booth for this year’s fair.
The Walworth County Agricultural Society, operators of the fair, which runs Aug. 27 – Sept. 4, told Peter’s Net in 2013 they were not welcome to return after receiving a complaint alleging booth volunteers gave a 7-year-old boy a two-inch plastic figure of an unborn baby in a plastic bag containing informational cards on abortion and fetal development.
In their initial refusal, fair officials also cited a lack of available booth space for 2014 and a duplication of fetal exhibits involving an unrelated crisis pregnancy display, according to information in a Jan. 30 letter from the Chicago-based Thomas More Society to fair officials demanding Peter’s Net members be allowed to exercise their religious speech rights under state and federal laws.
“The differences were set forth in our original letter, but have now been resolved amicably,” Brookfield attorney Jerome Buting, who served as special counsel for the Thomas More Society, told the Catholic Herald.
Buting and fair officials declined to comment in detail on the process and outcome of negotiations leading to the settlement between Peter’s Net and the fair.
“Rather than rehash prior disagreements, we prefer to look forward to the opportunity Peter’s Net has to evangelize our Catholic faith to patrons of the Walworth County Fair this year,” Buting said.
Buting said Peter’s Net is free to display and distribute Bible, crucifixes and any other material and items of a Catholic or Christian nature, including materials explaining the Catholic Church’s pro-life teachings.
“Peter’s Net may freely speak of Catholic or Christian matters, including advocacy against abortion or in favor of alternatives to abortion. Peter’s Net intends to be a faithful advocate of our treasured Catholic traditions and identity,” Buting said.
The so-called “baby in a bag” will be part of the display and material distribution offered by Peter’s Net.
“Patrons who are interested may take a ‘baby in a bag’ from the booth. Young children must have the consent of the adult accompanying the child, but no particular age restrictions apply,” Buting said.
No additional restrictions will apply to distribution of the material.
Paula Emmerth, executive director of Peter’s Net, said she is “very grateful for the intervention and help supplied by the Thomas More Society.
“The Thomas More Society believes very strongly that Catholics have a right to be heard and to have an equal voice in the marketplace of ideas in our country,” Emmerth said. “Peter’s Net has had a great fair season so far and we’re looking forward to promoting the Catholic faith again this year at the Walworth County Fair.”
Peter’s Net evangelization plans for 2014 included appearances at the Racine and Kenosha county fairs in Wisconsin and the Boone and McHenry county fairs in Illinois.
“We want to reach as many parishes as we can,” Emmerth said.
Peter’s Net will have to undergo normal lease renewal procedures each year, Buting said.
“They are looking forward to a long-term relationship with the Walworth County Fair and its patrons,” he said.
Buting said the Thomas More Society sees the agreements as another significant chapter in its effort to preserve religious freedom and expression.
“The Thomas More Society saw this matter to be of importance not only to its members and benefactors, but also in preserving religious freedom and expressions as a whole. We are very pleased at the successful outcome we achieved,” Buting said.
Fair officials declined to comment on the situation.
When reached through the marketing/public relations department, Walworth County Fair board president, David Adams, declined to comment on the resolution of the situation.