The Department of Justice on Tuesday issued its support for a South Carolina Baptist church that's suing Edisto Beach after the town banned worship services from being held at its civic center.
On behalf of Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island, the Justice Department submitted a statement of interest to a federal court in Charleston supporting the church’s argument that the town’s new policy violates its First Amendment rights.
Although Edisto Beach opens up its civic center for rentals by private groups, the town changed its facility use guidelines in May to prohibit rentals “for the purpose of religious worship services.”
Redeemer Fellowship had rented the facility twice previously. When the church applied to rent the facility for a third time, the town council voted to reject the application.
At a May 10 council meeting, the town’s lawyer advised that allowing religious worship in a public building could violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the church. The council then voted to amend the facility use guidelines to ban worship services at the civic center.
In its brief, the federal law enforcement agency said the town’s new policy “singled out and banned a category of constitutionally protected speech and religious exercise … based solely on its content and viewpoint.”
“This discriminatory ban is impossible to reconcile with [the 1981 ruling of] 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 brief argues.
“The town nonetheless attempts to justify its new ban based on ‘concerns’ that permitting religious worship services in the Civic Center on equal terms as other forms of expression might violate ‘the Establishment Clause.’” the brief continues. “But the Supreme Court already rejected that position in Widmar because a policy granting religious groups or speech equal access to a limited public forum does not violate the Establishment Clause.”
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The clause is regularly used by secular church-state legal groups to pressure government entities to end any conceived entanglement with religion or religious practices.
The Justice Department argues, however, that the town’s reading of the First Amendment is “exactly backward.”
“[T]he 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 brief explains. “The court should hold that Plaintiff Redeemer Fellowship has established a likelihood of success on its Free Speech and Free Exercise claims.”
A lawsuit was filed on behalf of Redeemer Fellowship by one of the nation’s leading conservative religious freedom legal nonprofit groups, Alliance Defending Freedom. In the lawsuit, ADF argued that there is “no compelling government interest sufficient to justify prohibiting religious worship services in the Civic Center.”
ADF contends that the church is being discriminated against because of their beliefs.
“Redeemer Fellowship is being told they are unwelcome — in the same civic center where secular groups may meet and where another church already rents a room for Bible studies, vestry meetings, and theological training,” ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of ADF's Center for Christian Ministries, said in a statement. “The town is constitutionally required to treat religious organizations equally and fix its policy barring Redeemer Fellowship from worship.”
This is far from the first religious freedom case that the Trump Justice Department has submitted a brief on, but it's the first since the departure earlier this month of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who issued an extensive guidance to federal agencies in October 2017 calling for protection of religious freedom.
That guidance was issued in response to President Donald Trump’s May 2017 executive order promoting religious freedom.
"The Constitution protects the right of individuals and groups to exercise their religion without discrimination because of their religion,” Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, who was appointed on Nov. 7, said in a statement. “The First Amendment requires that religious individuals and groups have the same opportunity to rent public facilities as other members of the community. The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of Americans, including fostering the religious expression of members of all faiths.”
The Justice Department had previously submitted briefs in support of more high-profile cases, such as its brief last year to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Christian Colorado baker Jack Phillips who was punished by the state for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
In October, the Justice Department submitted a brief to the Supreme Court asking it to take up the case of a Christian funeral home company whose owner was accused of violating discrimination law when he fired a biologically male transgender employee who wanted to wear female clothing consistent wither her gender identity.