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March|April 2005
An Academic Auction By David Bitkower
Job Fair By Dana Mulhauser
The Mobile Law Office By Margot Sanger-Katz
Self-Adhesive Salvation By Nicholas Hengen
Domesticated Disputes By Dashka Slater
Cases & Controversies
The Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon

Self-Adhesive Salvation

A mailroom with a mission.

By Nicholas Hengen

SINCERELY YOURS, A RED-BRICK STORE FRONT ON MAIN STREET in Manchester, Conn., bears the eagle insignia of the United States Postal Service in red, white, and blue. Inside, customers can find stamps, P.O. boxes, and salvation.

The store opened three years ago when the Postal Service made a deal with the Full Gospel Interdenominational Church to set up a privately operated postal counter in Manchester. In the new post office, a poster lays out Full Gospel's ideals: "Sharing God's Love, Sending His Hope, Bringing His Salvation." Above the counter, a television mounted near the ceiling plays videos like "Pennies for Pasta," in which Full Gospel children collect money and purchase pasta to send with church missionaries. Nearby, a picture of a Peruvian boy reads, "Thank you for helping me!"

Bertram Cooper, a longtime resident of this graying community of 55,000 east of Hartford, was one of many locals who liked the convenience of Sincerely Yours. But when the 77-year-old strolled into the store in December 2002, he was taken aback. "They had a minister preaching on the television and they had all sorts of paraphernalia for the church. So I said to the clerk, 'How come they have all of this religious stuff going on here?' " Cooper was told that if he didn't like the décor, he could take his business to Manchester's other post office a few miles away.

Cooper didn't like that answer and, with the help of the ACLU, he sued the U.S. Postal Service. His lawyer, Suzanne Wachsstock, said that the mix of piety and postal business at Sincerely Yours—where the president is the Full Gospel pastor and the employees are all congregation members trained in ministry outreach to be "Gospel Workers"—crosses the constitutional line between church and state. By operating a post office, the church is "stepping into the shoes of the government," Wachsstock said, which means that "they have to abide by the Constitution." While the First Amendment guarantees church members' right to worship as they please, it also forbids the government from promoting or endorsing their actions.

The suit asks the Postal Service to force Full Gospel to remove the religious displays at Sincerely Yours or to give up its contract with the church. Cooper is also suing Ronald Boyne, the local postmaster who was in charge of bidding the contract for the Postal Service. It may seem noteworthy that Boyne is also Full Gospel's longtime head usher, but the ACLU hasn't been able to prove that he did anything wrong in his official role. Boyne wouldn't answer questions about the suit, though he was happy to sing the praises of Sincerely Yours. "They're pleasant, they're quick, they have no lines," he reported.

Good service or no, Sincerely Yours isn't a particularly profitable venture. Most of the country's 4,000 privately operated postal counters (they're officially called Contract Postal Units) are located in businesses like convenience stores. They make money not on stamps, but on the newspapers and candy bars that customers buy when they come in to mail a letter. Sincerely Yours, on the other hand, sells only postal products and keeps just 18 percent of the sales—less than 7 cents a stamp. According to Joseph P. Secola, Full Gospel's lawyer, after two years, the store is just starting to break even.

But the point of Sincerely Yours is to attract potential converts, not customers. Full Gospel would have no interest in running the store without the evangelical trimmings. "If the church is forced to sanitize the place of any religious reference in order to keep Sincerely Yours open," Secola said, "then the Contract Postal Unit will shut down."

Such threats aside, Full Gospel is enjoying its Main Street storefront. On a bright, chilly Saturday morning in December, in the plaza next to Sincerely Yours, the Full Gospel choir was running through some hymns while a friendly penguin wandered through the sparse crowd, encouraging anyone within earshot to "Keep the Christ in Christmas." A couple of women sat by the door of Sincerely Yours selling cups of Peruvian hot chocolate, hoping to stir up interest in the church's missionary work in South America. They smiled gently as customers stepped past them and into the warm store.

There, on the postal counter, sat a jar covered in missionary pictures and ready for donations. Next to it, a sign proclaimed, "The United States Postal Service does not endorse the religious viewpoint expressed in the materials posted at this Contract Postal Unit."

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