The Department of Justice contends a South Carolina town has interpreted the Constitution backwards, unfairly preventing a church group from renting a room in a local civic center.
The town of Edisto Beach found itself in court after changing its rules to prevent Redeemer Fellowship from using the public facility, as other groups are allowed to do.
Christiana Holcomb of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending Redeemer Fellowship, argued churches “shouldn’t be treated less favorably than other groups that want to rent facilities.”
“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,” she said.
“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 small church had rented the Edisto Beach Civic Center for Sunday worship on two occasions, but after the church proposed another rental agreement, the town council turned down the request.
Then the officials changed their rules to ban the church.
The DOJ now has filed a “Statement of Interest in Support of Plaintiff’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction” in the case.
The filing explains that the town recently changed its “facility use” guidelines to ban rentals “for the purpose of religious worship services.”
“The town thus has singled out and banned a category of constitutionally protected speech and religious exercise – religious worship – based solely on its content and viewpoint,” the government said.
“This discriminatory ban is impossible to reconcile with Widmar v. Vincent, where the Supreme Court struck down on First Amendment grounds a virtually identical ban on ‘religious worship or religious teaching’ in a university’s limited public forum,” the government said.
“Indeed, the town’s reading of the First Amendment is exactly backwards: The town seeks to permit the content and viewpoint discrimination against religious worship that the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit and to prohibit the equal access for religious expression that the Establishment Clause permits. The court should hold that Plaintiff Redeemer Fellowship has established a likelihood of success on its Free Speech and Free Exercise claims.”
The brief was filed under federal law that allows the attorney general “to attend to the interests of the United States in a suit pending in a court of the United States. … The United States is resolutely committed to protecting the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment.”
The filing continued: “The towns’ ban on ‘religious worship services’ at the Civic Center constitutes viewpoint discrimination. By its own admission, the town allows other forms of religious speech to take place in the Civic Center, including ‘meetings’ by ‘churches and other religious groups and organizations … to teach religion, read from and discuss the Bible or other religious works, advocate religious views, sing hymns, and engage in prayer.'”
But the town “has drawn a line singling out and banning the perspective of ‘religious worship services.'”
Erik Stanley, senior counsel for ADF, commented: “The government can’t discriminate against churches because of their beliefs. The town of Edisto Beach has told Redeemer Fellowship that it is unwelcome in the same civic center where nonreligious groups may meet – and where another church already rents a room for Bible studies, vestry meetings, and theological training.
“The town is constitutionally required to treat religious organizations equally, and we welcome the DOJ’s support of that principle and of our client in this case. As the DOJ’s statement of interest rightly explains, ‘the Town’s reading of the First Amendment is exactly backwards: the Town seeks to permit the content and viewpoint discrimination against religious worship that the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit and to prohibit the equal access for religious expression that the Establishment Clause permits.'”
The original complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, stated: “The town’s amended guidelines permit virtually all community groups to rent the center for all expressive activities, with the sole exception of religious worship services . The town’s determinations and amended guidelines violate Redeemer Fellowship’s rights under the Religion and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The decision left the church members meeting underneath a stilt house, with their meeting space “exposed to the elements and changing weather conditions,” the lawsuit said.
“There is no compelling government interest sufficient to justify prohibiting religious worship services in the Civic Center,” it continued.
The complaint seeks injunctions against the restrictions, as well as declarations that the town engaged both in content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination.
Town officials declined to respond to a WND call requesting comment.