Across America, churches continue to struggle for their religious freedom
People are probably inclined to think more warmly of churches amid the cold winds of Christmas than at any other time of the year, but, sad to say, even the spirit of the season isn’t enough to dissuade some from all out legal assaults on houses of worship.
In Hawaii, for instance, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys earlier this month had to file an appeal of a recent trial court decision that breathed new life into a baseless lawsuit against two Oahu churches being targeted by atheists. The lawsuit accuses the churches of defrauding the government by paying substandard rent to the public schools in which they meet each week – even though the school districts themselves say the churches have consistently paid all agreed-upon rents.
The atheists filed their suit under the state’s False Claims Act, which allows “whistleblowers” with inside information to expose fraudulent billing by government contractors … provided they can provide clear evidence of the fraud. The atheists haven’t offered a shred of such evidence against the churches, nor does the atheists’ complaint meet several other requirements of the law. That prompted a trial court to dismiss the most critical aspects of the lawsuit last spring – but now the court has decided to let the case proceed, anyway.
“Congregations serving the neediest in their communities deserve better than trumped-up accusations stemming from a clear hostility to churches,” says James Hochberg of Honolulu, who is serving as co-counsel and is one of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with ADF. “We trust that the appeals court will come to the right conclusion so that these churches can continue with their important work without any further harassment.”
(Meanwhile, the two atheists who filed the lawsuit have relocated to Michigan – where they are already bringing a similarly baseless complaint against a memorial cross in that state.)
The news is better from Florida, where ADF attorneys have successfully helped two churches fend off the predations of their city governments.
In Jacksonville Beach, that required a lawsuit and a trial, after the city twice denied Church of Our Savior a property permit simply because officials wanted to use that property for other purposes – despite a federal law against that kind of discrimination.
The court ruled in favor of the congregation, and now “Church of Our Savior can finally build its church and fulfill its mission to serve its community,” says ADF Senior Counsel Joseph P. Infranco. “We hope other cities considering similar zoning restrictions will take note of this decision and ensure that their codes fully comport with federal law.”
Earlier this fall, and farther south, in Haines City, officials opted to amend their Land Development Ordinance to comply with federal law after receiving a letter from ADF attorneys. The letter challenged the city’s efforts to require churches – and only churches – to locate on a minimum of two acres of land … a clear violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
“RLUIPA ensures that a city’s zoning restrictions don’t single out ministries for discrimination and penalize them because of their religious viewpoint,” says ADF Litigation Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “The city has done the right thing in voluntarily addressing this problem to bring it into compliance with federal law so that churches can fulfill their mission and serve the community.”
“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” American abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said, and in the current legal climate, that’s especially true of religious liberty.
In this Christmas season, I hope you and your family are especially grateful for this most precious gift to our nation … and that you will join me in offering prayers of intercession for believers across the nation who are standing courageously in defense of that freedom, and for the attorneys who are working so faithfully on their behalf.
Reprinted with permission from Alliance Defending Freedom.