The Department of Justice Tuesday joined a religious discrimination lawsuit filed by a South Carolina Baptist church opposing its hometown’s ban on religious groups holding services in its civic center.
The Justice Department said it supports the Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island, which in August filed a lawsuit against Edisto Beach, South Carolina, over the ban.
Edisto Beach adopted the ban earlier this year because it was afraid that allowing Redeemer Fellowship to rent space in the civic center violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which imposes the separation of church and state.
But the Justice Department said such a ban runs counter to the Establishment Clause.
“Indeed the town’s reading of the First Amendment is exactly backwards: the town seeks to permit the content and viewpoint discrimination against religious worship that Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses prohibit and to prohibit equal access for religious expression that the Establishment Clause permits,” the Justice Department lawyers wrote.
The case is the first religious liberty lawsuit the Justice Department has pursued since acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker was appointed on Nov. 7. His predecessor, Jeff Sessions, urged Justice Department lawyers to aggressively defend what it saw as attacks on religion.
“The First Amendment requires that religious individuals and groups have the same opportunity to rent public facilities as other members of the community,” Mr. Whitaker said in a statement.
Redeemer Fellowship gathered at the civic center for services between April and May after it outgrew its previous meeting space at a church member’s home, according to its lawsuit. But the meetings made town council members skittish, fearing the meetings could be seen as providing a government subsidy to a church, thus violating the First Amendment, according to the lawsuit.
An attorney for Edisto Beach, which unanimously approved the ban, said he was concerned that if the civil center was rented to a business group for more money than the church was paying, that could be viewed as an endorsement of that religion.