SC town bans church from holding services in civic center. The church is fighting back

Members of Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island ‘deserve fair treatment and equal access to the town’s public civic center,’ the church says in a lawsuit.
Members of Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island ‘deserve fair treatment and equal access to the town’s public civic center,’ the church says in a lawsuit. Bradenton Herald file

After a South Carolina town voted to ban religious groups from holding services in its civic center, one church decided not to turn the other cheek.

The church, Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island, filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Edisto Beach over the change, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the church.

The lawsuit alleges that Edisto Beach’s ban is “targeted discrimination against religious speech,” and a violation of the freedom of religion and of expression which are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Edisto Beach’s Town Council adopted the ban because it was afraid that it might have been violating the First Amendment by previously allowing Redeemer Fellowship to rent space in the civic center to hold religious services.

According to the minutes from the May 10 town council meeting, the town attorney recommended the council amend “civic center rental rules to prohibit rentals for religious worship services,” because it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which establishes the separation of church and state.

“(W)hen you have worship services . . . you have signs that are put out at the Civic Center with the religious organization’s name on it and the Edisto Beach Civic Center’s name on it, there’s potential for flyers to be given out, and it gives the appearance that the Town is endorsing or supporting whichever particular religious organization that is,” town attorney Bert Duffie told the council, according to the council minutes.

The council voted unanimously in favor of the amendment, according to the minutes.

Duffie also encouraged the town to make the amendment because of a financial concern.

The attorney said if a religious group rented space at the civic center for less than it would pay another private business to use a facility, it could be perceived that Edisto Beach was providing a government subsidy of the church, another First Amendment violation, per the minutes.

In the June 14 town council meeting minutes the ban, referred to as the “Civic Center Facility Use Agreement,” was unanimously approved.

Redeemer Fellowship and the Alliance Defending Freedom have a different perspective.

“Churches shouldn’t be treated less favorably than other groups that want to rent facilities,” Christiana Holcomb, an attorney representing Redeemer Fellowship said in a news release. “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 lawsuit documents that the Redeemer Fellowship congregation gathered at the civic center for services on April 1 and May 6, after the eight-month-old church of 35-45 members “outgrew its current meeting space in a church member’s home.”

According to its website, “Redeemer Fellowship exists to bring glory to God by making disciples of all kinds of people, beginning on Edisto Island and extending to the ends of the earth.”

Since the town council’s amendment, the congregation has been looking for places to hold services, reporting on Facebook about meeting at homes and recently at New First Missionary Baptist Church, according to its website.

The church is looking to get out of a member’s garage, which has been their most common meeting place of worship, according to the lawsuit, which stated that the congregation would like use the civic center again.

In addition to being able to hold services in the town facility, Redeemer Fellowship is also seeking to be awarded damages and have its legal fees paid for, according to the lawsuit.

“The government can’t discriminate against churches because of their beliefs,” Erik Stanley, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Christian Ministries, said in a news release. Stanley, Holcomb and Matthew Gerrald are the attorneys representing the church, per the lawsuit.

Calls looking for official response to the lawsuit were made to Edisto Beach Town Administrator, Iris Hill, but were not immediately answered.

This is similar to another lawsuit recently settled in North Carolina. As in this instance, the Alliance Defending Freedom represented a small baptist church in a federal lawsuit against local officials.

The Alliance Defending Freedom even used similar language.

The Charlotte Observer reported that the lawsuit brought by At The Cross Fellowship Church resulted in the city council of Monroe changing a rule “to allow churches to locate everywhere that businesses and other services can.” That change was made at the urging of Monroe’s municipal attorney.

At The Cross Fellowship has dropped its lawsuit against the city in response to the change, according to the Charlotte Observer, which reported that Stanley said “The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious.”

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