It's hard to say it smells like Christ outside the El Paso county court complex. It smells, in fact, like hot dogs, thanks to competing lunch carts on this warm March morning.
But Jim Singleton wears a beatific smile as he talks about how Courtside Ministries is "Bringing the Aroma of Christ to the Courthouse," as it promises on its brochure.
"It changes the atmosphere in there," says Singleton, the group's 67-year-old executive director. "People will go in less charged."
At least some will. Defense attorney Sarah Christensen sees the ministry's use of county-owned property as an outrage, an embarrassment and a fresh example of what has given Colorado Springs a reputation as a screwed-up stronghold for the Christian right.
"It just kind of emblazons that image on anyone walking into the courthouse," she says. "I don't think it's appropriate."
Christensen's concerns fall into two major categories. For one, the ministry is allowed to set up its table on government property. And if the group is quietly promoting a favored group of Christian lawyers, doesn't that also amount to solicitation, which is a no-no according to the Colorado Bar Association's rules of professional conduct?
(Last August, Christensen says, she had an investigator swing by the Courtside Ministries table to ask about attorneys; the investigator was given names and numbers for three, including Tyler Makepeace, the group's founder.)
On the solicitation question, Makepeace is adamant that it doesn't happen.
"I have never taken a referral from Courtside Ministries, period," says Makepeace, explaining that any calls that come in from the ministry are directed elsewhere. "If I take one case, that ends the ministry."
Like Singleton, Makepeace believes the ministry and efforts to spread the Christian faith can help redirect the feelings of anger that commonly bubble in the courthouse. He also brushes off the concern about separation of church and state. Yes, the group spreads the word from county property, but county officials say groups supporting other faiths or interests could do the same.
"As long as they are not impeding or harassing the patrons of the courthouse," explains Dennis Hisey, chair of the El Paso County board of commissioners, "we're probably not going to get involved."
Fourth Judicial District Chief Judge Kirk Samelson won't opine on whether the ministry has changed the atmosphere in the courthouse; he's "bound not to give opinions," in case questions about the group's presence are brought to him in the future.
For now, Courtside Ministries has no plans to slow down. The group has opened an office near the courthouse at 102 S. Tejon St., and Makepeace says the local chapter of the Christian Legal Society, which oversees the ministry, plans to add Singleton as its first paid employee. And Makepeace says Christian legal groups from Chicago, San Diego, New York and Toronto have all expressed interest in starting their own courtside ministries.
At the courthouse, Singleton relies on volunteers from Village Seven Presbyterian Church, where he worships, and New Life Church, Woodmen Valley Chapel and other churches.
While working the table on a Thursday morning, Julie Willis smiles at another volunteer as he returns from a long conversation about faith, making a motion with her hands like she's catching a trout.
"Fishing them in," she laughs.
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