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Sunshine on Sunrise Service

January 29, 2002

There's something very David and Goliath about the battle between a venerable civic group and a large television ministry over the Hollywood Bowl's Easter sunrise service. Except that Goliath won. And he did it on a coin toss, not on any test of strength or virtue.

The nondenominational program has been a tradition for generations, and for most if not all that time a Hollywood-based civic group has produced it. Hollywood Bowl Easter Sunrise Services, incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 1943, traces its roots to the organizers of the 1921 Easter service, the first to be held in the natural amphitheater then known as Daisy Dell.

This very history is part of the present-day squabble. The Hollywood group claims its forebears had a 99-year renewable lease with Los Angeles County, which owns the property, to produce the Easter service. But a search by the county counsel turned up no written records of such an agreement.

Enter Trinity Broadcasting Network, the reason the county was searching its records. Not content with running the nation's largest Christian television network, Costa Mesa-based televangelists Paul and Jan Crouch cast a covetous eye on the nation's best-known Easter sunrise service. According to the Hollywood group, Trinity gained control of the group's board in 1992 and won approval to produce and broadcast that year's Easter service.

Already controversial in Orange County for what many consider its over-the-top Christmas lights, Trinity put on a 1992 Hollywood Bowl Easter program replete with flamboyant network personalities and "prayer line" telephone numbers running across television screens.

The next year, longtime sunrise service supporters regained control of the board and returned to the program of preachers, hand bell choirs and gospel singers that for decades had drawn thousands to the bowl. So Trinity, which has featured Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich on its programs, took its quest to the top. Last Friday the network won a coin toss to produce this year's March 31 Hollywood Bowl service.

In the absence of a clear lease, county supervisors can't be blamed for opening the application process. As the county counsel outlined in a 10-page memo, not to do so would have violated 1st Amendment requirements to provide equal access to a public forum. Only the Hollywood group and Trinity applied to conduct this year's service. Fine, so far. But instead of exercising any form of civic judgment about the use of a county-run property, the Board of Supervisors flipped a coin.

Has the Hollywood group done a poor job in the past? What about Trinity's performance in 1992? Which group has the most community support or the best record of inclusion?

It's hard to avoid at least the appearance that the supervisors have been cowed by the powerful broadcasters' demands or swayed by ministry supporter Antonovich. Surely by next year they can come up with a more rational way to pick an Easter preacher.

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