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

The town of Edisto Beach's ban on renting a public facility for religious worship services is discriminatory and violates the First Amendment, the Department of Justice said.

DOJ filed a statement of interest Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Charleston supporting Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island in its federal lawsuit against the town. Edisto Beach Town Council amended civic center rules earlier this year to prohibit renting space for worship services. By forbidding religious worship at the public facility, the town has singled out and banned a category of constitutionally protected speech, DOJ concluded.

"The town's reading of the First Amendment is exactly backward," the department wrote in its statement. "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."

The Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the church in the suit, applauded the Justice Department's position.

"The Town of Edisto Beach has treated worship as a second-class citizen," said Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel for the Alliance. "No government should be able to discriminate upon religious worship.”

Drew Butler, an Edisto Beach attorney representing the town in the case, told The Post and Courier Wednesday that he did not want to comment on the issue until he's had a chance to digest DOJ's statement. 

He referred to the town's October court filing where Edisto Beach contested that its civic center rules to exclude religious worship services do not violate the Free Speech Clause because it only excludes a type of "activity." Court documents also show the town said that allowing religious worship services would violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Earlier this year, Redeemer Fellowship — a Southern Baptist congregation that formed in January — rented space at the Edisto Beach Civic Center twice for worship services. In a closed-door session at a May council meeting, Town Attorney Bert Duffie said council should amend the facility rules to prohibit religious worship services, while still welcoming "civic, political, business, social groups and others," according to the center's guidelines.

By permitting the services, Duffie said the town would be in violation of the Establishment Clause because it would appear that the church was endorsing one religion over another. 

According to council meeting minutes, Duffie said that church signs and fliers would give the impression that the town was endorsing the church.

Redeemer Fellowship filed a lawsuit in August, stating the rules "violate Redeemer Fellowship’s right to free exercise of religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit said.

The Justice Department's statement claims that the town is misunderstanding First Amendment. DOJ cited the 1981 Supreme Court ruling in Widmar v. Vincent where a student religious group was previously barred from using University of Missouri facilities, but the decision was overturned by the Supreme Court.

"The town is operating in a time warp," Holcomb said. "These type of cases arose and were dealt with in the 1980s and 1990s. The Establishment Clause does not require that government treat groups less favorably.”

Both groups will present oral arguments in court on Nov. 29.

Follow Rickey Dennis on Twitter @RCDJunior.