School board grills church on marriage, abortion, gender beliefs … before denying lease

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[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by The Daily Signal.]

By Tyler O’Neil
The Daily Signal

FIRST ON THE DAILY SIGNAL—A Maine church that outgrew its meeting space applied with the local school board to lease space at a high school for worship services, but the school board appeared to apply a religious test to the church, and negotiations fell through. Now, the church is suing.

“Public institutions that seek to lease their facilities for revenue should not be able to discriminate based on religious or political conviction,” Mariah Gondeiro, vice president and legal counsel of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, the law firm representing the church, said in a press release exclusively provided first to The Daily Signal.

Gondeiro is representing The Pines Church in Bangor, Maine, which sued the Hermon School Committee Tuesday. The Pines Church aimed to move to Hermon, Maine, because many church members live there. Yet Hermon had no rental spaces available, and it appeared that meeting at the high school represented the best option.

According to the complaint, organizations seeking short-term leases must work with the principal of the school and complete a facilities request form—a form that does not include any questions about the organization’s beliefs. Many organizations currently rent Hermon High School space, including Black Bear Basketball, Hermon Recreation, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and various baseball groups. The church had even offered to pay $1,000 per month, $400 over the original price, as a sign that it would invest in the community.

Yet, when the church filed the request form, Superintendent Micah Grant and a member of the Hermon school board asked pointed questions about the church’s positions on “issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Chris McLaughlin, a school board member who includes personal pronouns in his signature, wrote that he “wanted to get a better sense of how The Pines Church approaches issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion and around their messaging around some key issues relevant to marginalized communities.”

He asked, “Is The Pines Church receptive of same-sex marriages? Do they consider marriage only to be between 1 man and 1 woman?”

He also requested information on the church’s positions on “access to safe and affordable abortion,” “access to gender-affirming medical care,” “conversion therapy for LGBTQIA+ individuals (youth and adults),” and “inclusive sexual education and access to birth control for youth.”

The superintendent forwarded McLaughlin’s questions to the church.

The lawsuit states that “the implications of the [board’s] questions are clear; unless [The Pines Church] affirms [Hermon School Department’s] religious and political beliefs, the [board] will not support [the church’s] lease proposal.”

The committee rejected Pastor Matt Gioia’s proposal to lease the high school for either six months or one year because of its religious beliefs on abortion, sexual orientation, “gender reassignment,” “conversion therapy,” and marriage, according to the lawsuit. The committee voted to allow the church to rent school facilities on a month-to-month basis after the pastor had told the committee that a month-to-month lease would not work.

“A month-to-month lease is not feasible for the church because it makes it impossible to plan and budget and allows [the school board] to terminate the lease on short notice, leaving the church with nowhere to go,” the suit explains.

The lawsuit alleges that the school board’s questions reflected “an improper motive on behalf of [the school district] to exclude traditional viewpoints on these issues from use of the school facilities.”

The church claims that the school board’s move “sends the message to houses of worship and other religious entities that organizations that maintain traditional historically orthodox biblical beliefs about human sexuality are second-class institutions, outsiders, and not full members of the Hermon community.”

Conservative Christians who follow the Bible define marriage as between one man and one woman, defend unborn life in the womb, and affirm that God created humans male and female, not transgender. Yet a growing social movement does not just reject these ideas but brands them hateful.

The church claims the school board violated its rights under the First Amendment, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and under Maine’s public accommodations laws. The lawsuit asks the court to order the school board to award the church either a six-month or a year-long lease, along with compensatory damages.

“The Hermon School Committee has a history of leasing their properties to secular organizations without persecution,” Gondeiro, the legal counsel, said. “We are advocating for fair and equitable treatment under the law, and The Pines Church was denied that opportunity by the Hermon School Committee.”

“We are understandably disappointed with the process in which we had to go through, but we are not discouraged,” Pastor Matt Gioia said in a statement first provided to The Daily Signal. “We have seen the Lord move through our church and grow our community so much since our founding. We are hopeful that we will be able to continue our worship and fellowship without discrimination.”

[Editor’s note: This story originally was published by The Daily Signal.]

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