A Wisconsin judge has ruled that the town of De Pere must provide churches and religious organizations exemptions to an LGBT non-discrimination ordinance that among other things would have required them to allow access to bathrooms on the basis of a person’s gender identity.
Brown County Judge William Atkinson ruled last Friday that the ordinance barring employment, housing and public accommodation discrimination that protects on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation cannot be applied to five churches and the parent company of a local Christian radio station.
Violation of the ordinance could have resulted in the churches and organization being issued a fine or infraction.
Even though the ruling was handed down last Friday, Atkinson’s written ruling has not yet been released.
“This court victory came just in time for these churches who have treated cautiously under the burden of this government orthodoxy,” said Kevin Snider, an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, which represented the organizations in their lawsuit filed earlier this year. “Our clients and the many other religious institutions in De Pere can fulfill their religious functions and ministries this Christmas season, without fear of being brought before a tribunal due to their hiring choices or refusal to host same-sex marriages on church property.”
As previously reported, the ordinance was passed last November by the De Pere City Council and went into effect in March.
PJI filed a lawsuit before the law went into effect on behalf of The Hope Lutheran Church, Crosspoint Church, Destiny Church, St. Mark Lutheran Church, Christ the Rock Church and Lakeshore Communications, Inc, which owns the De Pere-based Q90 FM.
The city sought to dismiss the complaint on the grounds that the churches could be considered places of public accommodations because they are facilities that are often open to the public outside of their “traditional role as a house of worship.”
According to PJI, the city’s attorney’s tried to claim in court that actions, like serving as a polling place or handing out water to marathon runners, could make churches places of public accommodation.
If the city’s claims were successful in court, PJI notes in a press release, it would have made De Pere the first municipal government in the United States to deem churches places of public accommodation.
The Green Bay Press-Gazette notes that the city also argued that the churches’ claims were “hypothetical and remote” because the ordinance had not yet been applied to the churches. The city also explained that Lakeshore Communications and its radio station are a private operation and therefore not governed as a place of public accommodation.
Additionally, the ordinance also reportedly grants a housing discrimination exemption to religious groups to allow them to limit “the sale, rental or occupancy of dwellings which it owns or operates for other than a commercial purpose to persons of the same religion, or from giving preference to such persons."
PJI attorneys maintain that the ordinance still violated the organization’s First Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.
“This unconstitutional ordinance could not go unchallenged,” PJI President and Founder Brad Dacus said in a statement. “These religious organizations stood up for their convictions and fought back against intolerant and aggressive LGBT policies. Now churches can continue to advertise, display, or publish teachings and sermons on matters of sexual ethics, divorce, or the biological phenomenon that persons are born either male or female — without the City’s oppressive restriction.”
The ruling was praised as a victory by the Washington Family Council, a social conservative nonprofit that seeks to “advance Judeo-Christian principles and values in Wisconsin.”
Wisconsin Family Council President Julaine Appling said this week that the De Pere ordinance is similar to other ordinances that had been proposed in other Wisconsin towns, adding that her organization was “familiar” with the type of language included in the bill.
“The first thing we did was alert citizens and pastors because, as is typical with these proposals, the public doesn’t realize they are happening until very shortly before the elected officials take them up,” she said in an online broadcast this week.
Appling added that a number of people — including pastors from the impacted churches and the head of the Christian radio station — originally appealed to the city council before it approved the ordinance to amend the proposal to include an exemption for churches and religious organizations pertaining to the public accommodations portion of the ordinance. The request was ignored by the city council.
At a second meeting, the five churches and Lakeshore Communications warned the council members that if they passed the amendment without a religious accommodation, they were prepared to sue the city. According to Appling, the council members “mocked” the promise of a lawsuit and called their warning an “idle threat.”
“We will see if the city is smart enough to accept this [court] decision or if it arrogantly appeals it. While we wait, we should thank God for this critical ruling and for the courage of the five churches and the radio station,” Appling concluded. “Truly, given how so many court decisions have gone when religious freedom clashes with LGBT issues, this is an early Christmas present.”