Case pitted sexual orientation laws vs. religious liberty

By Pacific Legal Foundation,
California based rights organization

The Brown County Circuit Court has issued a written decision which harshly criticizes a city’s attempt to impose sexual orientation and gender identity mandates on religious organizations.

The City of De Pere, which is near Green Bay, sought to categorize religious organizations as “places of public accommodation.” As such, they would have been subject to non-discrimination mandates on gender identity and sexual orientation. The ordinance applied not only to public accommodations as traditionally defined but also applied to housing, employment, and advertising.

Before the ordinance took effect in March 2018, Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) filed suit on behalf of five churches and a Christian radio station located in De Pere. Following discovery, PJI moved for summary judgment and the City sought to dismiss the case. The City argued that any time a church opens to the public, outside of their “traditional role as a house of worship,” the City has the right to impose its own values on that church.

In mid-December of last year, PJI’s attorney, Kevin Snider, appeared in court and argued the case. The judge ruled against the City from the bench, noting that an immediate, oral decision was necessary to ensure the churches’ religious freedom during the Christmas season. Last Friday, March 15, the Court followed up with an 18-page written decision detailing its reasoning, which followed closely the arguments PJI had presented. The judge labeled the City’s ordinance an “egregious free speech violation” and stated, “The viewpoint discrimination in the ordinance is straightforward. Churches and religious entities may speak, advertise and otherwise publish their religious beliefs, including expectations of members, attendees and employees, and use of the facilities and services provided—so long as those beliefs are in agreement with the City’s sexual orthodoxy.”

As to employment, the Court observed, “When an employee’s conduct falls short of obligations relating to congregational life, a religious institution needs to be able to set the terms and conditions of employment through the exercise of its spiritual authority.”

The Court further addressed the City’s attack on churches’ community activities, “Whether such programs and activities can be construed as commercial or open to the public does not transform the nature of a church.”

The City has not yet announced whether it plans to appeal the decision. Brad Dacus, founder and president of PJI, commented, “We are thrilled that the court so clearly recognized and rejected this latest attack on the bedrock principles of church autonomy and religious freedom. It has been our privilege to represent these religious organizations that courageously stood up for their convictions in the face of government hostility.”

PJI has been assisted locally in this case by Wisconsin attorney Heidi N. Miller,

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