5 Churches, Christian Radio Station Sue Wisconsin Town for Exemption to LGBT Ordinance

Flags wave in front of De Pere, Wisconsin's city hall on Feb. 11, 2007.
Flags wave in front of De Pere, Wisconsin's city hall on Feb. 11, 2007. | (Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Royalbroil)

Five Christian churches and a Christian radio station have filed a lawsuit against the town of De Pere, Wisconsin, claiming that a recently passed LGBT nondiscrimination ordinance could force them to violate their religious beliefs.

Last November, the city enacted an ordinance that bars discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation and other social classifiers like race and gender in areas such as housing, employment and public accommodation.

As the new ordinance is set to take effect on March 1, the the churches and the radio company filed a lawsuit in Brown County Circuit Court last week seeking clarification on whether or not religious exemption would be provided to faith-based organizations that uphold traditional teachings on marriage, gender and sex.

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The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Hope Lutheran Church, Crosspoint Church, Destiny Church, St. Mark Lutheran Church, Christ the Rock Church and Lakeshore Communications, Inc. — the parent company of the De Pere-based Q90 FM. The groups are being represented by the Pacific Justice Institute.

The organizations fear that the ordinance could force them to hire people that don't agree with the Bible's teachings and also fear that it could force them to promote messages and events that don't align with their faith, such as same-sex weddings.

The lawsuit claims that the De Pere ordinance does not specifically include protections for religious organizations and that the city government has made no assurances that a religious objection will be provided for faith-based institutions.

The court document states that the ordinance doesn't even include language on the ministerial protections recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"As a result, the ordinance is likely to be imposed on churches and other religious organizations in a manner that would mandate government orthodoxy in core religious functions, communication, and conduct," the lawsuit states.

Even though the ordinance allows faith-based institutions to hire from within their own religion, the lawsuit contends that the ordinance "does not give a church the discretion to set other employment conditions that the City would deem discriminatory under the ordinance."

"Moreover, the ordinance does not purport to allow a church to discharge a minister at its discretion without being subject to City review and the potential imposition of penalties," the lawsuit adds.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the city ordinance unconstitutional under Article 1 of the Wisconsin Constitution if it can't be "interpreted in a manner that exempts religious entities."

Section 18 of Article 1 states: "The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed." Additionally, the state Constitution says that "any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience" shall not be permitted.

In a statement published by Fox11, Lakeshore Communications officials argued that the ordinance is too "broadly written."

"Churches and religious organizations could be put into a position to be forced to hire people who directly oppose the Bible's teachings on gender and sexual activity," the company's statement reads. "Churches and religious organizations could be forced to provide facilities and any or all services desired by people who self-identify as transgender."

Specifically, the radio station argued that it could be forced to promote events and organizations that are "directly opposed to the teachings of God and His Word."

The statement adds that the coalition initially appealed to the city council and asked for a rewrite of the ordinance to grant religious protections. However, their concerns went "disregarded."

"If cities can tell churches who they must hire, retain or promote, and to whom their sanctuaries and other sacred grounds must be made available, and what types of viewpoints may be espoused through advertising, our religious freedom is in serious jeopardy," PJI President Brad Dacus said in a statement. "It is alarming that the City of De Pere would not enact basic protections of religious freedom. We are very hopeful that the court will uphold the rights of these churches and this radio station."

According to Fox11, a public forum was planned for Tuesday evening to discuss the ordinance. However, no court hearing has yet been scheduled. 

"The City wants to reach out to those in the community who may have questions on the City's new anti-discrimination ordinance," a news release on the public forum states.

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