Starting a new church is no easy task.
You need to put together a launch team, fundraise, and advertise. You have paperwork to fill out and bylaws to draft. And then, of course, you need to find a place to worship.
Unfortunately, finding a temporary home proved to be more difficult than one new church had bargained for.
Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island is a small church in Edisto Beach, South Carolina that had rented the Edisto Beach Civic Center for Sunday worship on two occasions. However, after the church proposed another rental agreement, the town council voted to reject the church’s application and amended the facility use guidelines to ban all rentals for “religious worship services.”
And that’s what led Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island to file a lawsuit.
Let’s take a deeper look at this church, its case, and how it led to the town of Edisto Beach lifting its ban.
What is Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island?
The lead pastor of Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island has long been involved in the community.
For example, he served as president of the local pastors’ 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 food bank. At the town’s request, he even led a community worship service at the Town of Edisto Beach Civic Center in Hurricane Matthew’s aftermath.
So, when he launched Redeemer Fellowship at the beginning of 2018 and needed a place to meet, the civic center was an obvious choice. After the new church rented space there in April and May 2018, it seemed like a natural fit for their worship services.
But when the church proposed another 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.
What could have changed the town’s mind so suddenly?
It turns out that the town attorney claimed that entering into a rental agreement with Redeemer Fellowship might violate the Constitution’s prohibition on government 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.
After all, the town of Edisto welcomes a variety of groups to rent space at the civic center, including “civic, political, business, social groups, and others.” But town officials made it clear that “others” does not include Christians looking for a place to worship.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit on behalf of Redeemer Fellowship.
Just because the town of Edisto lets a church rent space at the civic center on the same terms as everyone else, it doesn’t mean that the government is “establishing a religion.” Redeemer Fellowship never asked to be the only church allowed to rent the civic center. It never asked for free advertising urging citizens to attend services. All it asked for is the ability to rent some space on the same terms as everyone else.
That shouldn’t be too much to ask.
- August 2018: ADF filed a lawsuit against the town of Edisto Beach.
- November 2018: A federal district court heard the case. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed a statement of interest supporting Redeemer Fellowship. As the DOJ’s statement explains, “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.”
- December 2018: The Town of Edisto Beach voluntarily changed its policy to reverse the worship ban. Now churches can rent the civic center on the same terms as every other member of the community.
- August 2019: In light of the policy change, both parties filed an agreement to end the lawsuit.
The government should never be permitted to bar people of faith from benefits that others receive, simply because they are religious. Churches should have the same access to public facilities as any other group. Anything less is a clear violation of the Constitution.
By refusing to rent civic center space to Redeemer Fellowship, Edisto Beach officials violated the Constitution on two different counts—denying the church its right to free speech and its free exercise of religion.
The U.S. Supreme Court has already made clear in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer that the government cannot treat religious people and organizations worse than everyone else.
Thankfully, the town changed its policy so Redeemer Fellowship could continue to meet in the civic center.
The bottom line
The government cannot treat churches and religious groups worse than everyone else.