Church files federal lawsuit after town bans worship services in civic center

Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island filed a federal lawsuit this week against Edisto Beach after Town Council voted to ban worship services at the town civic center.

The Southern Baptist congregation, which formed in January, worshipped in the facility twice this year. But after the church proposed another rental agreement, council members voted to reject the application and voted unanimously to amend the center's rules to prohibit religious worship services, according to the Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the church.

"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," the group said in a news release.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Charleston, Redeemer Fellowship paid $400 to worship twice at the town's civic center earlier this year.

Both actions were approved by the town’s special projects coordinator.

The church was told that a separate request to use the center's auditorium and office for a $300 fee had to go through Town Council, according to the lawsuit.

In a closed-door session at the May 10 council meeting, Town Attorney Bert Duffie said the town should amend center's rules to prohibit religious worship services, although the town opens the center to “civic, political, business, social groups, and others,” the lawsuit said.

According to meeting minutes, Duffie said that church signs and people passing around church fliers outside the facility would give the impression that the town is endorsing the church, which violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

After the vote, Moore refunded the church its $300 for an upcoming June rental.

"The Town’s determinations and Amended Guidelines prohibiting the rental of the Civic Center for religious worship services ... violate Redeemer Fellowship’s right to free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit added that the actions "are hostile toward religion because they treat Redeemer Fellowship and its religion less favorably than other groups that are permitted to rent the Civic Center."

The church is seeking attorney and litigation costs, as well as a court declaration that the town has violated the church's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Duffie did not return a phone call for comment. Town Administrator Iris Hill said the town has not received the lawsuit and that the town won't comment on litigation.

It's common for religious organizations to use public facilities for worship, particularly when they're starting out and need meeting space.

Charleston County schools have been hosts to church services. The North Charleston Convention Center and Florence Civic Center both host statewide church conventions and services. 

Claire Curtis, the interim Department of Political Science chair for the College of Charleston, recalled seeing local schools being used for worship services. 

"That surprises me that they can get away with all of that,” she said.

Since being denied the center, Redeemer Fellowship returned to worshipping inside a member's garage.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.