Skip to main content
Supreme Court of the United States

The Growing Discrimination Against Churches in America

By Alan Sears posted on:
October 17, 2017

What exactly does government think churches are good for?

It’s a question that’s popping up more and more all over the country, as churches are increasingly coming toe-to-toe with federal, state, and local officials who want people of faith out of the public square but still supporting government policies – even when those policies run directly counter to Christians’ deepest sensibilities.

In Jacksonville Beach, Florida, for instance, city officials have spent the last two and a half years trying to keep the people of Church of Our Savior from building on their own property, saying the church is not “consistent with the character of the neighborhood.” The city twice denied the church a property permit, in direct violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits zoning discrimination on the basis of religion.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the church, and, a year ago, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida ruled that RLUIPA prevents the city from discriminating against the church in these kinds of zoning decisions. The city considered appealing the decision but opted last month to instead settle with the church.

“Church of Our Savior can finally build its church building and fulfill its mission to serve its community,” says ADF Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco. “We hope other cities considering similar zoning restrictions will take note of this decision and ensure that their codes fully comport with federal law.”

Discrimination of a similar kind is being inflicted on His Healing Hands Church in Lansing, Michigan. The city’s Housing Commission has told the congregation that it cannot use any of the community rooms at its public housing developments to hold meetings of a religious nature. This, despite the fact that most of those who belong to Healing Hands live in the housing developments, and that the commission is letting other religious and non-religious community groups use the rooms: the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Youth Haven Ranch – even other churches.

The commission’s position has forced His Healing Hands to meet outdoors for most of the year (transportation to other locales is difficult for many in the congregation), but with winter coming on, that won’t be an option much longer. So an ADF allied attorney has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the church, asserting that the commission’s policy violates their constitutionally protected freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, and equal protection of the law.

“The government should not single out a faith-based community group for this kind of illegal and unconstitutional discrimination,” says Timothy W. Denney, a partner with Rickard, Denney, Garno & Associates and one of more than 1,600 private attorneys allied with ADF. “The church is simply seeking access to the community rooms on the same basis as other community groups. When a government opens up its facilities to community group use, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the government cannot exclude groups based solely on the religious content of their meetings.”

The government’s unwillingness to exclude churches is the basis for another federal lawsuit filed last month by ADF attorneys on behalf of three California congregations. This suit charges the state’s Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) with violating the churches’ constitutionally protected rights by forcing them to pay for elective abortions in their health insurance plans.

Last year, ADF and Life Legal Defense Foundation filed formal complaints with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services against DMHC regarding California’s mandate and its violation of federal conscience law. Those complaints came on the heels of another complaint filed directly with DMHC, which responded by affirming its decision to force all plans to cover all abortions – without any explanation as to how that decision squares with the Constitution and contrasting federal law.

“Because Obamacare requires health insurance coverage, and the California mandate requires abortion coverage in any health plan, these churches are truly left with no way to opt out of paying for abortions,” says ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Jeremiah Galus. “What’s absurd, though, is that the same government that rightfully does not require California churches to pay for contraceptive coverage requires them to pay for elective abortion coverage.

“Californians,” he says, “should not be forced to choose between following their deepest convictions and submitting to unlawful and unnecessary government mandates.”

Neither, of course, should the people of any other state, and lawsuits are rapidly accumulating all over the country (many of them filed on behalf of ADF clients) to press this issue and – we hope – bring it to the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Honor all people,” 1 Peter 2:17 tells us. “Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.” Meeting all of those directives – especially honoring our Lord’s church while honoring the king – grows more challenging every day for those who fear God amid this increasingly tumultuous culture.

Please be in prayer for those walking these lines and for our attorneys as they stand with them in support of religious freedom in America. 

Alan Sears

Alan Sears


Alan Sears served as founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, building on his experience as longtime leader of the organization to strengthen alliances, forge new relationships, and develop ADF resources.

Unequal treatment of religious schools, parents, and students is unjust and unconstitutional.
In Vermont, Religious Schools Are Left Out in the Cold

Unequal treatment of religious schools, parents, and students is unjust and unconstitutional.

Jack Phillips Baker's Religious Freedom Supreme Court
Creative Freedom Is More Important Than You May Think

Because of laws regarding sexual orientation and gender identity that have been passed by state and local governments, creative professionals have been asked to choose between their businesses and their conscience.

303 Lorie Smith at Supreme Court Religious Freedom
Can the Government Force You to Speak? This 10th Circuit Decision Says “Yes”

Working with ADF attorneys, Lorie Smith’s case currently awaits a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, after a lower court ruled against her earlier this year.