A church of only a few dozen people in Edisto Beach, South Carolina, was growing and needed a space bigger than a garage beneath a stilt home, so it rented a room in the local Civic Center a couple of times.
Finding it worked well, church leaders asked for an ongoing rental agreement.
But town attorney Bert Duffie was worried about violating the Constitution’s establishment clause, so he convinced the council to reject the request and amend the center’s use guidelines to ban church worship services.
Now the town is being sued by Redeemer Fellowship for depriving members of the same opportunities other organizations are given.
“Churches shouldn’t be treated less favorably than other groups that want to rent facilities,” said Christiana Holcomb, a legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending the church.
“The town of Edisto Beach tells the community that it welcomes ‘civic, political, business, social groups and others’ to use its civic center, but the town’s recent policy change singles out one form of expression, worship, as inferior to other forms of speech, and that’s clearly unconstitutional. Redeemer Fellowship and its members have invested in the Edisto community for years, and they deserve fair treatment and equal access to the town’s public civic center.”
The small church had rented the Edisto Beach Civic Center for Sunday worship on two occasions, but after the church proposed another rental agreement, the town council first turned down the request.
Then the officials changed their rules to ban the church.
The lawsuit notes that another religious organization, an Episcopal church, has been renting a multi-purpose room for approximately five years. That church “uses the Civic Center room for church office space, Vestry meetings, Bible studies, and theological training.”
The lawsuit charges the town with viewpoint discrimination, because it allows groups “to engage in singing, teaching, social interaction, and similar expressive activities” but then bans those doing the same things “from a religious viewpoint.”
“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,” said ADF’s Erik Stanley, “The town is constitutionally required to treat religious organizations equally and fix its policy barring Redeemer Fellowship from worship.”
The complaint, in U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, explains: “The town’s amended guidelines permit virtually all community groups to rent the center for all expressive activities, with the sole exception of religious worship services . The town’s determinations and amended guidelines violate Redeemer Fellowship’s rights under the Religion and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as well as the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The decision left the church members meeting underneath the stilt house, with their meeting space “exposed to the elements and changing weather conditions,” the lawsuit says.
“There is no compelling government interest sufficient to justify prohibiting religious worship services in the Civic Center,” it continues.
The case seeks injunctions against the restrictions, as well as declarations that the town engaged both in content-based and viewpoint-based discrimination.