As a new church startup, Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island in South Carolina set out to find a home at the beginning of the year. After twice renting space at the Edisto Beach Civic Center in April and May, it seemed a natural fit for their worship services moving forward.
But when Redeemer Fellowship proposed an ongoing rental agreement with the civic center, town officials denied the request. Not only that, but in May, the town council changed the civic center rules to ban worship services altogether.
Why? Because the town attorney raised concerns based on the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
But allowing a church to rent the civic center on the same grounds as everyone else is not an establishment of religion – it’s just fair.
In reality, the Constitution simply requires that the government treat people of faith neutrally, not worse than everyone else. Yet, the civic center "welcomes civic, political, business, social groups and others to its facility" while specifically excluding worship services. That certainly doesn’t seem very neutral. If city officials truly want to avoid constitutional conflicts, they should offer equal access to Redeemer Fellowship.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit on Redeemer Fellowship’s behalf. Redeemer Fellowship has precedent to back them up. In another ADF case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the government cannot treat people of faith and religious groups as second-class citizens.
Plus, the government has an interest in treating religious people and organizations neutrally, as religion benefits the community.
Just take the lead pastor at Redeemer Fellowship for example. He is the president of the local pastor’s alliance, as well as the director of the community choir. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew, which devastated the community in 2016, the lead pastor was instrumental in facilitating relief teams and setting up a foodbank. At the town’s request, he even led a community worship service at the civic center in Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath.
So why hinder the church’s ability to operate on a level playing field with secular groups? Treating churches worse than everyone else not only hurts the church but also the community.
And Redeemer Fellowship is not the only church that this new policy could harm. The Episcopal Church has an ongoing rental agreement for exclusive use of one civic center room in which it has office space, hosts Bible studies, vestry meetings, and even theological training.
The legal battle over allowing churches equal access to the same public benefits as secular groups is not a new one.
In 1993, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit struck down a similar policy at the Fairfax County School District in Virginia as unconstitutional. In that case, the school board had a rental policy that allowed a wide range of groups to rent the school, both commercial and noncommercial. But it had an escalating rental agreement for churches, allowing them to pay the noncommercial rate for five years and increasing it over the next four years to the commercial rate – five times the amount of the noncommercial rate. Because this rental agreement specifically targeted churches and its aim was to encourage them to go elsewhere, the court ruled this policy unconstitutional.
The civic center authorities in Edisto Beach are violating this ruling.
After all, as the Fourth Circuit recognized back in 1993, churches should have the same access to public facilities as any other group. Anything less is a clear violation of the Constitution.