Edisto Beach facing lawsuit
by The Press and Standard | September 13, 2018 5:00 am
Last Updated: September 11, 2018 at 3:45 pm
Edisto Beach officials are facing a legal challenge to their decision to alter the rental rules for the town’s Civic Center Center to block a new church from renting the center for its religious services.
The Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Beach filed suit in the Charleston federal court on Aug. 27, alleging that their constitutional rights were being violated.
In addition to the suit, the church’s attorneys are also seeking a preliminary injunction that will allow Redeemer Fellowship to use the Civic Center for its church services while the civil case awaits a hearing.
The suit was filed on behalf of Redeemer Fellowship by Matthew G. Gerrald of the Columbia law firm of Barnes, Alford, Stark and Johnson and two attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom.
Attorney Drew Hamilton Butler of the law firm of Richardson Plowden has been retained to represent Edisto Beach in the suit. The plaintiffs are not asking for a jury trial.
Edisto Beach Mayor Jane Darby said she would not comment on a legal issue at present.
“In the interest of open government, we will release a statement at an appropriate time,” Darby said.
Members of Edisto Beach’s town council met in executive session with Town Attorney Bert Duffie at their May 10 meeting to discuss several issues including rental contacts for the Civic Center.
Coming out of the executive session, Duffie told council members that it was his recommendation that council consider a motion to amend the Civic Center’s rental rules to prohibit rentals for religious worship services.
Duffie, according to minutes of the meeting, said he had been asked to research the legal ramifications of renting the space to a church to hold religious services.
Based on that review, he told council members “it is my legal opinion that that type of rental is prohibited by the First Amendment Establishment Clause.”
Duffie explained that the Establishment Clause says that no governmental entity shall endorse or establish or support a religion. “That is what we commonly refer to as separation of church and state,” he told council.
Duffie said that if the rental was approved, it will be likely that signs will be posted at the Civic Center with the religious organization’s name and the Civic Center on them.
Flyers distributed by the church, he added, will likely have the church’s name and the Edisto Beach Civic Center’s name on them.
That, he offered, will give the appearance that the town is endorsing or supporting whichever particular religious organization it is. That could violate the Establishment Clause and put the town at risk for liability, Duffie said.
Duffie pointed out another legal problem that might arise. Rentals at the Civic Center are generally less costly than private party rentals. A possible legal argument could be made, he suggested to council, that the lower rental might be considered a subsidy. A case could be made that the government is subsidizing, through a type of rental, the establishment of that church. That could also violate the Establishment Clause.
Based on those reasons, Duffie requested the town council amend the rental policy. The motion passed unanimously.
Some of the same constitutional issues that the town council examined in making its decision are the basis for the suit challenging the action in federal court.
The suit suggests that the town council’s decision to rewrite the rental regulations for the Civic Center in order to block Redeemer Fellowship’s use of the facility violate the Free Speech Clause, the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause.