CITY BANS CONGREGATION FROM HOLDING WORSHIP SERVICES IN PREMISES THEY OWN THEMSELVES
Redemption Community Church opened a coffee shop in the town of Laurel, with the aim of serving the local community coffee for six days a week and presenting the Gospel on Sunday. Ragamuffins Coffee House is located in a very poor neighbourhood and seeks to meet the needs of those who are struggling, offering them a welcoming and warm community, and great coffee.
“We’re trying to represent the tremendous love of God. Community is our first product; after that we bring handcrafted coffee,” said Rev. Jeremy Tuinstra. “Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel heavily influenced the people of Redemption Community Church, the owner of Ragamuffins. In it, Manning describes how people who receive God’s love and grace are spiritual ragamuffins. They get beat up, bedraggled, and burnt out, but God never stops loving and pursuing them,” the coffee house’s website detailed. “We hope you experience the goodness of God in this community of Ragamuffins, people changing by his love and grace.”
But the church’s beautiful outreach effort was recently met with staunch opposition, when city officials told them to cease ministry operations and leave immediately. According to the Alliance Defending Freedom, the religious freedom legal group representing the church, city officials adopted new zoning codes with the express intention of stopping Redemption Community Church from operating in the city’s downtown area. “The law forces houses of worship to submit to an expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain special exception process that is not imposed on secular organizations,” ADF explained.
“Almost immediately after the church purchased the property, the city changed its zoning code to remove houses of worship on less than one acre as permitted uses in the zone and allow them only if a special exception permit application was individually approved,” ADF noted. “The city’s changes in its code were not neutrally applied and were only adopted to single out the church.” “Are you doing church at your property?” one city planner reportedly asked a church representative following the purchase, adding, “There are eyes everywhere, and you are always being watched.”
The city then sent the church a cease-and-desist letter, and threatened to fine it $250 per day if it continued to host worship gatherings. ADF is outraged at what it believes to be clear discrimination against a church organization at the hands of local city officials. “The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Despite making every effort to work with the city to comply with its burdensome zoning changes, Redemption Community Church is now being told to either stop holding worship services or pay severe fines. The city’s discriminatory practices violates Federal law.”
“The government is constitutionally required to treat religious organizations equally,” added ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley, director of the ADF Centre for Christian Ministries. “Laurel officials allow secular groups such as cinemas, theatres, comedy clubs, schools, and health clubs to locate downtown, but not this small church that wants to serve its community. That’s not legal or constitutional.” Things are starting to change, however. The Trump administration has proposed a new initiative to protect the rights of Christians to meet for worship without government interference.
“The Department of Justice has announced the ‘Place to Worship Initiative,’ which will focus on protecting the ability of houses of worship and other religious institutions to build, expand, buy, or rent facilities, as provided by the land use provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA),” the DOJ announced via a press release. Attorney General Jeff Sessions noted that the constitution “protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together” before adding that “under the laws of this country, government cannot discriminate against people based on their religion, not in law enforcement, not in grant-making, not in hiring, and not in local zoning laws.”
“President Trump is an unwavering defender of the right of free exercise, and under his leadership, the Department of Justice is standing up for the rights of all Americans,” Sessions continued. “By raising awareness about our legal rights, the Place to Worship Initiative will help us bring more civil rights cases, win more cases, and prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.” The Justice Department has even launched a new web page to provide churches with extensive information about the new initiative, making it easier for churches to report instances of local government meddling in their ministry activities.