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New legal services site launched to protect religious organizations from 'dark legal clouds gathering across our nation'

New legal services site launched to protect religious organizations from 'dark legal clouds gathering across our nation'

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has launched its "Speak Up Movement" website so that while preachers are watching over their flocks, they can take comfort in the fact that ADF's legal team will "watch over the horizon" for the "dark clouds gathering … threatening your religious freedom."

Among other things, ADF's "Speak Up Movement" promotes "Pulpit Freedom Sunday," a program embraced by the Christian right where pastors preach political messages during church in protest to the 1954 Johnson Amendment to the tax code which prohibits charitable non-profits, which include churches, from engaging in political activity.  Despite numerous complaint letters filed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has not enforced the policy.  In Nov. 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit in federal court to enjoin IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman from continuing "a policy of non-enforcement of the electioneering restrictions against churches and religious organizations."  Additionally, FFRF seeks to order Shulman "to authorize a high-ranking official within the IRS to approve and initiate enforcement of the restrictions of §501(c)(3) against churches and religious organizations, including the electioneering restrictions, as required by law."  According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1,500 pastors reportedly participated in "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" on Oct. 7, 2012.  ADF's "Speak Up Movement" website confirms this number of participating pastors, adding that the IRS has not taken any action.

In a video ad released last week (embedded below), ADF declares that:

Each day, as a pastor, you face new challenges.  Each day, you are called the shepherd your congregation and reach out to a needy world.  Each day, you give spiritual direction and comfort to those whose hearts have been broken.  Each day your work, your calling, enriches your community and strengthens our culture.

But today while you minister, the legal climate across our land is changing rapidly.  Forces are working to stop you and silence the truth.

Many pastors believe they and their congregation are safe from the pending storm.  That's what a New York church thought until they were denied use of a local public school for their worship services while other groups were allowed to meet.  It's what a church in Arizona thought until they were forced to abandon their newly purchased downtown facility when the city refused them a permit to hold church services.  It's what churches in California and Florida thought until bible studies held in members' homes were shut down by a city ordinance and it's what a ministry in New Jersey thought before they were sued for refusing to allow a same sex civil union ceremony in their worship pavilion.

These events and hundreds like them may never have reached your local news but be assured, they may become your local headlines.

At Alliance Defending Freedom, we see the dark legal clouds gathering across our nation, threatening your religious freedom.  That's why we created SpeakUpFreedom.org.

...

While you watch over your flock, we'll watch over the horizon.

Watch:

Here is a brief background of the cases referred to by ADF in its ad:

New York Public School Rentals by Churches.

The public school auditorium rental story garnered national attention about a year ago. National Public Radio wrote, "For years, small churches have been meeting in New York City public schools. Some want cheap rental space, and others are part of a 'church planting' movement. The idea is to 'plant' congregations, often in unconventional settings, to attract the unaffiliated. A federal court last year ruled that these school gatherings violate the separation of church and state. The congregations now have one week left to vacate."  Earlier, in the 16-year-long case styled Bronx Household of Faith v. Board of Education of the City of New York, the U.S. Supreme Court declined a review on Dec. 5, 2011, without comment.  Americans United for Separation of Church and State (same link as case) noted that while it is constitutional for public schools to refuse to rent their facilities to churches or houses of worship, under the New York Department of Education's policies, "community groups, including religious ones, could still use the schools for lectures, meetings and other events on religious topics."

Yuma, Arizona, Downtown Church Building.

In 2007, the Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenos Nuevas Christian Church purchased a former J.C. Penney store but, according to the Yuma Sun, the "conditional use permit was denied by the city Planning and Zoning Commission. City officials argued that allowing the church on Main Street would conflict with efforts by the city and private groups to revitalize the three-block historic district as an area for retail stores, restaurants and entertainment."  The church, which was represented by ADF, lost the building to foreclosure during the four years of litigation and relocated to a site not in the historic district in question.  In Dec. 2011, the church received a $400,000 settlement from the City for legal fees, costs and damages, including the building it lost.

Florida and California Home Bible Study Gatherings.

The bible study cases involve residential zoning code violations.  Chuck and Stephanie Fromm in San Juan Capistrano, California, were fined for failing to obtain a permit for holding bible studies twice a week at their historic home on an acre of land, with no residences across the street.  Approximately a dozen people would show up for one of the studies, and 50 for another.  After a neighbor complained, the City fined the Fromms for violation of its code that prohibited “religious, fraternal, or non-profit” groups to meet in residential neighborhoods without a permit.  Faced with lawsuits and an outcry from Christians, the City reportedly refunded the fees and has not charged any more fees.  Last September, conservative media reported that Shane and Marlen Roessiger, of the In Him Healing Touch Ministry in Venice, Florida, were conducting bible studies attended by about 6 to 10 people every week.  The issue appears to have to do more with signage than bible study meetings.  The Roessigers were facing potential fines of $250 a day for a "'Need Prayer?' sign" in their yard and a "a 20-foot white, blood-red splattered crucifix."  The sign and cross are shown in a video report published by The Herald Tribune:

New Jersey Same Sex Wedding Case.

In Jan. 2012, a federal court found that when a Methodist church group called Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association refused to rent its boardwalk pavilion to a same-sex couple for a civil union ceremony, it violated the Law Against Defamation (LAD).  The issue was not so much about marriage equality vs. religious liberty but the church group's tax perks.  Think Progress reports:

In 1989, Ocean Grove applied for a Green Acres real-estate tax exemption, a New Jersey property subsidy for conservation or recreational purposes. One of the requirements to qualify for the exemption is that the property be “open for public use on an equal basis.” Thus, when Ocean Grove refused to allow a same-sex couple to utilize its pavilion, it was violating its agreement with the state of New Jersey:

As to “free exercise,” the LAD is a neutral law of general application designed to uncover and eradicate discrimination; it is not focused on or hostile to religion. To the contrary, it carves away exceptions on behalf of religious organizations… Respondent can rearrange Pavilion operations, as it has done, to avoid this clash with the LAD. It was not, however, free to promise equal access, to rent wedding space to heterosexual couples irrespective of their tradition, and then except these petitioners.

Ocean Grove now protects its pavilion with a religious exemption and should be free to discriminate against same-sex couples according to its beliefs. The couples who sued did not even pursue damages — they merely wanted to establish that Ocean Grove had illegally discriminated against them. The most important takeaway from this case is that any time opponents of marriage equality claim this New Jersey pavilion as an example of “religious freedom” being infringed upon or Christians as “victims,” they are blatantly wrong and distorting what happened to suit their narrative.

About D. Beeksma

One of the growing crowd of American "nones" herself, Deborah is a prolific writer who finds religion, spirituality and the impact of belief (and non-belief) on culture inspiring, fascinating and at times, disturbing. She hosts the God Discussion show and handles the site's technical work. Her education and background is in business, ecommerce and law.
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