Court says city can’t leave Michigan church in the cold

ADF-allied attorney represents congregation that city of Lansing prevented from using community rooms other groups use
Friday, February 10, 2017

LANSING, Mich. – A federal court ruled Wednesday that the city of Lansing’s Housing Commission cannot bar a Michigan church from community meeting space available to other groups. An ADF-allied attorney represents the church in a lawsuit filed in 2015. The court issued a preliminary injunction against the city last year; the new court order makes that injunction permanent.

Even though the commission allowed other groups, including other churches, to use community rooms at its public housing developments, it told His Healing Hands Church that it couldn’t meet in any of the rooms because the meetings are of a religious nature. As a result, the church, which primarily serves housing residents, had been forced to hold its meetings at outdoor locations nearby because the inability to transport residents—many of whom are children—to another location made meeting at another location practically impossible.

“Treating a particular religious group differently than everyone else isn’t being neutral toward religion, and the court has rightly affirmed this,” said Rickard, Denney, Garno & Associates partner Timothy W. Denney, one of nearly 3,200 attorneys allied with ADF. “The court’s order ensures that this church has access to the community rooms on the same basis as other community groups. As the court explained in its decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that the government cannot exclude anyone based solely on the religious content of their gatherings when a public facility opens up its property for community groups to use. That is completely consistent with the First Amendment.”

Although the commission has allowed a wide variety of both religious and non-religious community groups to use the rooms, including the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Youth Haven Ranch, and other churches, the commission’s attorney explained in a 2015 letter that the commission was relying on its “long-established policy” that “no religious services may be held in its community buildings.” The letter firmly stated that “the Housing Commission is not going to allow His Healing Hands Church to use its community center for religious purposes.”

After the commission refused to alter its ban, the church filed His Healing Hands Church v. Lansing Housing Commission in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

In its opinion, the court reaffirmed its prior reasoning “that the Housing Commission’s policy of allowing outside groups to offer programs that benefit the facilities’ residents through the teaching of moral and character development, while excluding the Church from teaching such topics from a religious perspective through Bible readings, singing, games, and biblically-based lessons on morality and life skills, constituted viewpoint discrimination that is indistinguishable from the viewpoint discrimination the Supreme Court held impermissible in Good News Club,” a pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decision from 2001 that made clear that government entities can’t discriminate against private, religious groups with regard to facility use because of their beliefs.

“This decision is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the First Amendment, and common sense,” said ADF Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco. “A victory for the church in this case is a victory for everyone’s freedom of speech.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
 
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