Imagine the uproar, a few decades ago, if Madison Square Garden had refused to rent space to Billy Graham to hold one of his crusades in the arena.
Not that there weren’t plenty of other groups wanting to use the place. Sports teams, singers, political parties, and orchestras all jockeyed to reserve those famous facilities. But Billy Graham’s reputation—and, yes, money—were as good as anyone’s. It was a public hall, he paid for the premises, and Madison Square Garden gave him the run of the place.
So, of course, did virtually every other major venue in the country, for most of five decades.
Which makes it a little disconcerting to learn that Mr. Graham and company would be turned away, today, from the Edisto Beach Civic Center in South Carolina. Edisto Beach officials, who until recently welcomed “civic, political, business, social groups and others to its facility” have now changed that policy to make it explicitly clear that “and others” does not include Christians looking for a place to worship.
Twice, earlier this year, the town rented out the center to a local church, Redeemer Fellowship. No riots ensued. No trashing of the place. No big mess left behind for the janitors to clean up. The church paid the going rate for the facility, and paid it on time.
Thinking this might be the start of a beautiful relationship, the church broached the possibility of renting the center on a more regular basis. Uh-oh. The town attorney quickly advised the town council to rewrite their rulebook. No worship services. No accepting Christians’ money for those purposes.
Edisto Beach officials seem pretty proud of what they regard as their bold stance on behalf of the First Amendment, specifically the Establishment Clause, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....”
It’s apparently stuck in the town council’s collective head that letting a church rent the Civic Center would be tantamount to telling everyone on the island they have to embrace that church’s theology—or else. You know, the way hosting a country music concert tells everyone on the island that if they don’t buy a ticket and attend in person, they better move back to the mainland. Or that anyone not rooting for one of the basketball teams playing in the building will see their taxes raised, effective tomorrow.
Get it? By renting the center to a church on Sunday mornings—in the same way they’d rent it to, say, the Kiwanis Club on Thursday night, or the town orchestra come Saturday, or the high school graduates next May—Edisto Beach officials would be “establishing” Redeemer Fellowship as the go-to church on the island, effectively reducing all other religious groups to also-ran status.
Next thing, all of our children will be forced to recite the Lord’s prayer in public schoolrooms, and we’ll all have to burn our rock ‘n roll music and hum the Doxology before ballgames.
That seems to be the town’s fear, and it’s clearly unwarranted. Redeemer Fellowship never asked to be the only church allowed to rent the Civic Center. It never suggested that the city provide free advertising or issue a statement urging citizens to attend services. The church just wants to pay their money and borrow a big-enough empty room, like any other “civic, political, business, and social group.”
They’re not asking Edisto Beach officials to put them in charge of the town. They’re asking for their fair and reasonable share of public space—and not to have their people and ideas effectively banished from public property.
Whatever the leaders of the community think they’re stopping by locking churches out of the center, what they’re starting is considerably greater cause for concern. Treating churches like second-class citizens invites other public officials to join the “banned” wagon, and the U.S. Supreme Court has already expressed its concern about that. In its 2017 Trinity Lutheran ruling, the court found that the government can’t treat religious groups less favorably with regard to access to government programs and property just because those groups are religious.
Like so many other cities and towns across America, Edisto Beach is so zealous to avoid the needless concern of “establishing a religion” that it is creating a real threat: “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Because where churches aren’t afforded their equal access to public property, religious freedom hasn’t got a prayer.