Religious Freedom Wins in Wisconsin City

Religious Freedom Wins in Wisconsin City

2018 | Week of December 17 | #1287

The headline on the press release declares, “Christmas Comes Early for Churches as Court Strikes Down Restrictive Ordinance.” The dateline noted Green Bay, Wisconsin. Needless to say, it all caught my attention.

This is a case that began in late 2017. It was just over a year ago that I received a call from friends in De Pere letting me know the City Council there was considering what we call a sexual-orientation/gender-identity proposal and what those pushing such ideas call an “anti-discrimination” law.  These proposals delineate a number of classes of people and characteristics, including sexual orientation and gender identity, and give them special rights and protections.

Typically the areas covered are employment, housing and public accommodations.  The language says it is against the law to not hire, to not house, whether renting or selling, or to not provide services or products to those included in these protected classes.  Enforcement protocols are given, along with fines for infractions.  The ordinances are bad from start to finish; they actually end up discriminating against people, just a different set of people. In addition, they don’t usually have exemptions for churches or other religious organizations.

As it turned out, the language in this proposal was essentially the same as what had been proposed in Sun Prairie and a couple of other cities earlier in the year. We were certainly familiar with it.  The first thing we did was to alert citizens and pastors because, as is typical with these proposals, the public doesn’t realize they are happening until very shortly before the elected officials take them up.

A number of people showed up at the first meeting to speak against the proposal, including several pastors and the head of a Christian radio station in the city. They asked the council to at least amend the proposal to include an exemption for churches and religious organizations in particular in the public accommodations area, citing Sun Prairie as a recent example of a municipality that did just that.  Public accommodations is broadly defined in these proposals as any place generally open to the public that provides services, goods or programs.

The council ignored the request.  By the second meeting, realizing the council was digging in, five churches and the Christian radio station had engaged attorneys and showed up with a letter letting the council know if it didn’t at least amend the proposal and proceeded to pass it, these entities would file a lawsuit against the city.

The council ignored the churches, the radio station and many citizens and so passed the ordinance without any religious exemption, even mocking the churches and radio station, calling their lawsuit warning an idle threat.

Well, the churches and the radio station weren’t kidding. Early this year, with the help of Pacific Justice Institute, they filed the lawsuit against the City of De Pere. Last Friday a judge in Brown County District court heard their case.

Pacific Justice Institute lawyers argued that churches and religious organizations’ religious freedom was being infringed by the ordinance.  The City held 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.  According to Pacific Justice, in the courtroom, De Pere’s attorneys even mentioned that actions such as a church serving as a polling place or handing out water to runners at an athletic event triggered the City’s onerous ordinance.

The judge ruled that effective immediately the ordinance does not apply to churches or religious organizations indicating that at Christmas, churches shouldn’t be have to be fearful of inviting the public to their special events and programs.

I agree with Brad Dacus, Founder and President of Pacific Justice Institute, who commented, “This unconstitutional ordinance could not go unchallenged.  These religious organizations stood up for their convictions and fought back against intolerant and aggressive LGBT policies.  Now churches can continue to advertise, display, or publish teachings and sermons on matters of sexual ethics, divorce, or the biological phenomenon that persons are born either male or female—without the City’s oppressive restriction.” ​

We’ll see if the City is smart enough to just accept this decision or if it arrogantly appeals it. While we wait, we should thank God for this critical ruling and for the courage of the five churches and the radio station.  Truly, given how so many court decisions have gone when religious freedom clashes with LGBT issues, this is an early Christmas present.

This is Julaine Appling for Wisconsin Family Council reminding you the prophet Hosea said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

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