ATHEISTS BANNED FROM BANK Mid-State chief stays group doesn't meet guidelines. By Danna Dy

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ATHEISTS BANNED FROM BANK Mid-State chief stays group doesn't meet guidelines. By Danna Dykstra Coy San Luis Obispo County [California] Telegraph Tribune Tuesday, May 4, 1993 Reproduced without permission. A group of atheists has been banned from meeting at Mid-State Bank after customers, irate about the group's weekend use of bank conference rooms, threatened to take their business elsewhere. Mid-State Bank President Carrol Pruett said Monday the bank received several complaints before the decision was made to prohibit the San Luis Obispo chapter of Atheists United from using conference rooms. Pruett said the complaints had nothing to do with the bank's decision. He said the group just doesn't meet the bank's unwritten criteria for the types of organizations allowed access to meeting rooms after bank hours. As a courtesy to the community, Mid-State Bank has allowed non-profit, civic organizations to use conference rooms free of charge for [the past] 25 years. Currently five of the bank's 14 branch offices in the county make conference rooms available to civic and community organizations. "In all that time we've never had a problem," said Pruett, "until now." Members of the atheist group said they believe the ban is discriminatory and have lodged a complaint with the District Attorney's Office which is looking into the matter. "If they're going to be open to the public, they should be open to the entire public," said Kathryn Bay, past chairperson of Atheists United. Hank Alberts, local representative for the American Civil Liberties Union, said Monday he was aware of the bank's action and had passed information on to the ACLU's Los Angeles office. "The issue is whether a private business can offer a part of the premises to one group and not another," Alberts said, "whether a private, as opposed to public institution, can discriminate legally." Alberts said he didn't know the answer. "But my personal view, even though I am a strong ACLU member, is that they (Mid-State) had the right to do what they did. Maybe I'm wrong. We'll wait and see." Until February, the 12 to 15 members of Atheists United met monthly at branch offices in San Luis Obispo. They met in 1992 and in January and February of this year. However, they learned in a Feb. 19 telephone conversation with a bank official that they could no longer meet at any Mid-State Bank. Pruett, in explaining why the atheists were initially allowed to meet, said, "Nobody paid attention." He said the bank has no screening process for organizations which ask to use meeting rooms. There is no written policy. However, the groups are "broad-based" and non-profit. Pruett said to his knowledge no church groups use the rooms. "We at the bank have a very thorough understanding of the Civil Rights Act," Pruett said. "We are very supportive of that effort. We ensure all departments are making all financial services equal to all customers." "But when the issue is our internal banking rooms, which is not an advertised service, we believe it's subject to the right of the bank's (descretion)." Pruett said the problems started when the atheist group been publicizing meetings at the bank in the newspaper and on a local cable television channel. "If they hadn't publicized this so much, this never would've happened." Peggy Koteen, treasurer for Atheists United, said the group now pay $10 to meet in the City/County Library conference room. But the money isn't the issue. During the meetings, the group writes letters to legislators protesting the use of tax dollars to finance religious services, such as chaplains in Congress. They discuss legal issues pertaining to separation of church and state. They believe they qualify for the bank's criteria of being "broad based and non-profit." Pruett said with the publicity, he anticipates the bank will change its procedures. "The inclination is to stop allowing anyone to use the rooms," he said, "which is unfortunate." Note: The reporter screwed up and started referring to Ms. Pruett as "he" throughout the article) * * * * * * * * * * * * * Addresses: Telegram-Tribune P. O. Box 112 San Luis Obispo, CA 93405 Carol Pruett President Mid State Bank P. O. Box 6001 Arroyo Grande, CA 93421 Write them and express how you feel about this!

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