Nearly every new Christian church in America faces the hurdle: Where will we meet? Church plants across the country rarely can afford to immediately purchase a building or begin construction immediately. Instead, they seek a temporary place to gather.
So when Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island wanted to rent the town’s civic center – just as a local Episcopal church had for about five years – the church’s leaders were disappointed to be rejected.
The town could have treated the church like everyone else and rented available facilities to the church at a market rate. That not only would have been a community-oriented and fair decision; it would have been the constitutional response. Instead, town officials denied the church and changed the civic center policies to ban all rentals for “religious worship services.”
On November 29, ADF Church Alliance attorneys are representing Redeemer Fellowship in court as the church challenges the actions of the Town of Edisto Beach. With local governments across the country testing the religious freedom of churches, ministries, and individuals, we can’t stand by as the Church is unjustly treated.
As believers, we know that the Church is not a building; it is a people. But meeting together is a critical component of expressing our faith. Being denied this space to meet is more than an issue of the town lacking common courtesy – it’s a problem of the government deciding what people and what messages are welcome in the public square.
Other groups can rent the civic center and participate in similar activities such as singing, teaching, and social interaction. The problem for the town seems to be what the topic of the singing, teaching, and socializing is about and who participates.
For two millennia, followers of Jesus Christ have looked to meet just about anywhere that they could. Over those two millennia, governments large and small have decided that it was not okay for certain groups of Christians to meet (or, in some cases, even exist).
Given countless historical analogies and clear constitutional guidelines, the town’s actions are troubling. Instead of the town acknowledging the error they committed when discriminating against churches, the town has chosen to defend its unconstitutional actions in court.
The town’s actions are so blatantly problematic that the case has even gained the attention of the United States Department of Justice, which wrote: “Indeed the Town’s reading of the First Amendment is exactly backwards: The 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.”
In other words, by refusing to rent civic center space to Redeemer Fellowship, Edisto Beach officials are violating the Constitution on two different counts – denying the church its right to free speech and free exercise of religion.
Local churches across the country are encountering a wide range of threats to their religious freedom. We aren’t surprised by the challenges of a changing culture, but we want to ensure that churches are prepared. Because when it comes to religious freedom, what happens to one church can have an impact on all churches through legal precedent – whether good or bad.
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