A Southern Baptist Church was not allowed to rent space to hold church services at a publicly funded town civic center.
Now, the U.S. Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest in U.S. District Court in South Carolina on Thursday supporting a church’s claim that the Town of Edisto Beach violated its rights under the First Amendment when the town barred it from renting space at the Town’s Civic Center.
“The Constitution protects the right of individuals and groups to exercise their religion without discrimination because of their religion,” said Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker. “The First Amendment requires that religious individuals and groups have the same opportunity to rent public facilities as other members of the community. The Department of Justice is committed to protecting the First Amendment rights of Americans, including fostering the religious expression of members of all faiths.”
The case, Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island v. Town of Edisto Beach, involves a small Christian congregation that sought to rent space for Sunday worship in the Civic Center, which is available for rental by community groups to hold events and activities. The town responded by enacting a policy barring worship services at the Civic Center, citing separation of church and state concerns. The town claimed that it wanted to avoid appearing as though they endorsed a religious group. As a result, the church filed a First Amendment lawsuit to allow it to rent space at the facility.
The Constitution requires that churches be allowed to rent facilities on an equal basis with other community groups. The Supreme Court held in the landmark case of Widmar v. Vincent (1981), that a university could not “discriminate against student groups and speakers based on their desire to use a generally open forum to engage in religious worship and discussion.” The United States’ Statement of Interest argues that allowing equal access to all groups, including the church, is required by the First Amendment. Allowing equal access, the United States argues, ensures the government neutrality toward religious expression that the Constitution requires.