A South Carolina church is a suing a city for treating them unfairly… and they have a point.
When the Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island opened up earlier this year, they met in a local garage. When their numbers began growing, they decided to rent out the auditorium in the Edisto Beach Civic Center.
It was public space, so that seemed like a great temporary home until they could eventually build or buy their own church. They weren’t even the only church in the building. A local Episcopal church rented a room, too. Specifically — and this is important — they rented a multi-purpose room in which they do office work, hold Bible studies, and conduct “theological training.” So it’s not the auditorium. It’s some smaller space nearby. And they don’t really hold worship services.
Redeemer Fellowship filled out the center’s application, paid $200, and met in the auditorium for their Easter weekend celebration. It went well. So they decided to make that their regular space and made a formal request for an extended rental… but this time, they were told the Town Council needed to approve it. (While that discussion was taking place, the church rented the auditorium again, as a one-off rental.)
The Town Council, in May, rejected the church’s request.
At the advice of their attorney, who wanted to avoid a possible Establishment Clause violation, the Town changed their guidelines to prohibit the space from being rented out for religious worship services. Just worship services. Churches could still rent office space, but rocking out to Jesus was a no-go.
“Churches shouldn’t be treated less favorably than other groups that want to rent facilities,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “The town of Edisto Beach tells the community that it welcomes ‘civic, political, business, social groups and others’ to use its civic center, but the town’s recent policy change singles out one form of expression, worship, as inferior to other forms of speech, and that’s clearly unconstitutional. Redeemer Fellowship and its members have invested in the Edisto community for years, and they deserve fair treatment and equal access to the town’s public civic center.”
The lawsuit argues that the town’s recent amended guidelines are inconsistent and amount to viewpoint discrimination — allowing some groups “to engage in singing, teaching, social interaction, and similar expressive activities” at the center while denying “access to those groups that engage in those same activities from a religious viewpoint.”
The Town claims they’re just trying to follow the law. Their attorney said that allowing the Church to rent the auditorium on a weekly basis — with a sign outside the building directing people to the church — could be perceived as a promotion of religion.
But just as when churches rent space at public high schools, there’s really no confusion. The perception problem is non-existent. Signs directing people to where the services are can only be out during certain hours, and after the rental time is over, it’s like the church never existed. No one confuses a government building for a church just because some religious people use it to practice their faith.
So much for that argument.
The Town also says there’s a financial concern:
The [Town’s] attorney said if a religious group rented space at the civic center for less than it would pay another private business to use a facility, it could be perceived that Edisto Beach was providing a government subsidy of the church, another First Amendment violation, per the minutes.
This… is just stupid. If the civic center is cheaper to rent, it’s cheaper for everyone. It’s not a special discount only given to the church. As long as everyone is paying the rental price set by the Town, there’s no financial concern.
(Seriously, where did the Town find this attorney? His argument are just awful here…)
A similar case recently took place in North Carolina, when zoning rules prohibited churches from holding services in a particularly busy part of the city. The idea was that the city wanted money-making businesses to build in the area, not churches. But if the church paid for the building, the city can’t tell them what they can and can’t do. Upon realizing that, the local officials changed the rules to remove the prohibition and the lawsuit was dropped in response. (ADF also represented the church in that case.)
The point is simple: Government can’t treat churches differently from other groups.
We usually see that in action when officials promote religion, through things like invocation prayers. In this case, Edisto officials are treating a church unfairly and the lawsuit is warranted.
Let the church rent the space. If they’re paying fair price, and they’re being held to the same standards as anyone else, I don’t see a problem. I’m not a lawyer, but the Town’s position seems really hard to justify even on church/state separation grounds.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Sean and Brian for the link)