"This is to give them a place to really just be kids," said Leifel Jackson with the giggles of little girls heard just around the corner.
Jackson founded Reaching Our Children and Neighborhoods (R.O.C.A.N) as a nonprofit for North Little Rock at-risk youth over a decade ago.
"We offer these kids a place off the streets during the summer and after school," Jackson said. "That way they aren't getting into trouble by just being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"We like to take the kids on field trips, and one of those was going to be to a water park. When we were making the phone calls to find the place, the kids were excited saying, 'Mr. Leifel we're going swimming we're going swimming!'," he said.
Jackson had hoped to make reservations for about 40 kids at Little Rock's Willow Springs Water Park. He was aware of a Monday group special where admission's roughly half price. But he said he faced an unexpected stipulation.
"I was talking to the gentleman and told him we wanted to know if it would be okay to make reservations for Monday with the group discount," Jackson said. "He told me, 'Well no you can't are you a church?' I told him we weren't a church but we're like a ministry," he said.
Jackson said his non-profit doesn't have much money, operating off community donations. He claimed he was simply trying to find a cost-effective way for all the kids to go.
But without the discount, Jackson said he couldn't afford the admission and the trip wasn't possible, crushing some kids' hopes.
"This child shouldn't have to drop her head , because we don't have the finance to take our kids out to the big theme park," he said.
"We had a volunteer from a church call and ask if the church could sponsor the kids to come, and they were told no," Jackson said. "The owner told us it was only military, senior citizens, or church groups. So, we had a volunteer who was a military member ask if she could bring the kids to come, he said no."
"So, even when we were trying to go with the terms of what they were saying, a church or military, it was no," he said.
But when we spoke with Willow Springs Owner David Ratliff, he told a different story of sorts.
"Nobody from a church group ever called and offered to do that. That would have been fine," he said. "In fact, we asked them to do that but they just didn't do it."
According to Ratliff, he never intended to discriminate against anyone.
"I wish it had never happened. I'm not here to offend anybody. I'm not here to break any laws," he said. "And I'm still not sure if I discriminated against anyone."
Ratliff said Mondays prove to be a slow day for the park, and the group discount was extended to military, senior citizens, and church groups to create a splash for business during the summer crunch.
"Monday was our worst day, so we offered to this to people in the military, over 50, and church groups," he said. "It's not a moneymaker. I'm just trying to get people to the park who have never been here.Every time we have a church group we have people who are very well behaved, they expect the most of each other, they are supervised, organized, and it's less expensive to bring them."
While Ratliff is a Christian man himself, he said his discount for churches isn't meant to exclude other charity groups, but it's a business decision.
"I'm not trying to punish anybody or judge anybody," he said. "I'm just trying to run a business and finish up my year.
What Does Case Law Say? Is this Discrimination?
According to John DiPippa, Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at the UALR Bowen School of Law, there's no clear cut answer to the question of is this discrimination under to the Civil Rights Act.
"It's an open question. I think there are plausible arguments for both sides," he said. "I do think it's a legitimate question, and I do think it's one we're going to see cropping up more frequently.
The Civil Rights Act prohibits a business from offering access or advantages to customers based on religion, most often interpreted as giving preference to one religion over another.
"Some people would argue that when the law was written, the writers had a different kind of religious discrimination in mind. That is, the kind in which Jews weren't allowed in public places or Catholics were discriminated against, while other religions were allowed," he said.
But in recent years, the question has continued to arise DiPippa said, "whether or not preferring religion over non-religion discriminates on the basis of religion."
"There are no reported cases for things like this where a business gives a discount only to religious groups," he said. "Some states' Civil Rights Commissions, which have no binding effect in Arkansas, have said you can't give something on a religious basis. But eventually the U.S. Civil Rights Commission or the courts will have to decide what the law exactly means."
DiPippa said he can see where both sides would have a case to argue on the issue, which is why ultimately a court would need to make the decision -- if it gets to that point.
Neither the water park nor the non-profit find themselves in a comfortable spot.
"I hate it, I just don't know what to do about it," Ratliff said. "I just really honestly don't know what to do about it. If I broke the law, I'll fix it, by golly."
"I probably want the same thing Dr. King wanted years ago -- a balance," Jackson said. "I just want my kids in this group to be treated the same as other kids."
Ratliff has discontinued the discount for church groups until an attorney can review the issue and its legality can be determined. The discount on Monday specials now applies only to military members and their families.