A judge ruled against a Wisconsin town’s effort to impose its “sexual orthodoxy” on churches through a “nondiscrimination” ordinance that declares all places of worship “public accommodations.”
Brown County Circuit Court Judge William Atkinson issued a verbal order in December concluding the ordinance passed by the De Pere City Council barring discrimination based on gender identity infringes on the religious freedom of local churches.
In the written decision, issued Friday, the judge calls the ordinance an “egregious free speech violation.”
“The viewpoint discrimination in the ordinance is straightforward,” the judge said. “Churches and religious entities may speak, advertise and otherwise publish their religious beliefs, including expectations of members, attendees and employees, and use of the facilities and services provided – so long as those beliefs are in agreement with the city’s sexual orthodoxy.”
The churches were represented by Pacific Justice Institute, which said the town was attempting to impose “sexual orientation and gender identity mandates” on churches.
The ordinance effectively bars employers, businesses and landlords from discriminating against people who identify as transgender and “gender non-binary.”
The ruling said that when an employee’s conduct “falls short of obligations relating to congregational life, a religious institution needs to be able to set the terms and conditions of employment through the exercise of its spiritual authority.”
And the judge addressed the issue of churches that provide activities for the community.
“Whether such programs and activities can be construed as commercial or open to the public does not transform the nature of a church,” the ruling said.
Brad Dacus, the president of PJI, said he was “thrilled that the court so clearly recognized and rejected this latest attack on the bedrock principles of church autonomy and religious freedom.”
“It has been our privilege to represent these religious organizations that courageously stood up for their convictions in the face of government hostility,” he said.
PJI sued last year to protect five churches and a Christian radio station.
The legal group explained that the pastors, “who preach from their pulpits on marriage and sexual ethics, hold their ministries to those biblical standards in areas of community outreach, employment, and advertising.”
The town had argued that whenever a church is open to the public, other than “as a house of worship,” the city rightfully could impose its own value system on the church. Such occasions would include providing a polling place or handing out out water to runners at an event.
In December, WND reported Atkinson, in an oral ruling, granted a summary judgment to the churches and denied the city’s request to dismiss the suit.
PJI noted the ordinance had no exemption for faith organizations, which typically is provided in such measures.