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Feds: Town can’t refuse to rent town civic center to church

November 22, 2018

EDISTO BEACH, S.C. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice says a South Carolina beach town’s ban on religious services at its civic center is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Federal officials 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. The Department of Justice said the town can’t ban constitutionally protected free speech under the First Amendment and that it’s illegally discriminating against religious viewpoints.

“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 Edisto Beach Town Council amended civic center rules earlier this year to prohibit renting space for worship services, after Redeemer Fellowship, the church, rented the civic center twice.

Court documents show the town said that allowing worship services would violate the Constitution’s ban against government establishment of a religion. 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 violating the Constitution because it would appear that the town was endorsing one religion over another.

Those supporting the church, though, say the government can’t exclude religious activities while allowing nonreligious activities to continue.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group 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.

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Information from: The Post and Courier, http://www.postandcourier.com

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