Churches, Radio Station File Suit Over City’s Attempt to Control Religious Employment, Advertising, and Facility Use
De Pere, WI–A coalition of churches and a non-profit radio station filed suit yesterday challenging a sweeping ordinance that purports to control aspects of religious employment, facility use, and even advertising. The plaintiffs are represented by Pacific Justice Institute, with local counsel Heidi Miller of Wauwatosa.
The ordinance was enacted by the City of De Pere, near Green Bay, just before Thanksgiving last year. It is set to take effect March 1.
The ordinance bars discrimination, broadly defining that term as well as public accommodation and employment decisions in ways that would severely curtail religious exercise. The only exception for religious entities like the churches and radio station is for hiring people of the same religion. That limitation would afford no ability to make employment decisions if a pastor, other employee, or applicant acts inconsistently with church teaching but continues to claim to be of the same faith or denomination.
The sweeping ordinance would also prevent public accommodations from denying use for events such as same-sex weddings or drag shows.
The ordinance also affects advertising and purports to restrict the radio station’s ability to promote people or events consistent with its beliefs. A broad reading would also affect the churches’ ability to promote Bible-based marriage conferences and potentially even sermons proclaiming age-old Christian teachings on sexuality. The ordinance hands enforcement authority to the city attorney.
Because the ordinance is written so broadly, and is devoid of typical safeguards such as religious employment exceptions, or even the ministerial exception unanimously recognized by the Supreme Court, PJI first sought amendments or assurances that the ordinance would not be interpreted or enforced in ways that impinged on religious freedom. The City of De Pere refused to provide any such assurances, leaving the religious institutions vulnerable absent court action.
PJI is asking the court in Brown County to either interpret the ordinance narrowly, or declare it invalid under the Wisconsin and U.S. Constitutions.
Brad Dacus, president of PJI, commented, “If cities can tell churches who they must hire, retain or promote, and to whom their sanctuaries and other sacred grounds must be made available, and what types of viewpoints may be espoused through advertising, our religious freedom is in serious jeopardy. It is alarming that the City of De Pere would not enact basic protections of religious freedom. We are very hopeful that the court will uphold the rights of these churches and this radio station.”