June 14, 2018
At Ragamuffins Coffee House, owners are probably most famous for this blend: community service and worship. That's because the Maryland spot isn't just another business on Laurel's Main Street. It's run by a church that opens its doors -- and its arms -- to the area's homeless and needy families, offering coffee six days a week and a shot of God everyday, especially on Sunday. It's a concept they hoped would help them connect with the city. And it did -- until Laurel's government got involved.
City officials got a whiff of Redemption Church's plans and informed Pastor Jeremy Tuinstra that he'd have to file for a special exemption -- a slow and expensive process that didn't apply to other non-religious groups. On top of a non-refundable $2,000 filing fee, the church was told it had to hire an engineer and submit plans to comply with the vague terms of the zoning law. And even when Ragamuffins did that, there was no guarantee the city wouldn't reject it.
"Three days after they first looked through the property and walked through it with a city official, the city started to change its laws," Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christian Holcomb explained. "First it banned nonprofit organizations and then secondly it changed the law to make houses of worship restricted to...second-class or second tier in their zoning." Redemption complied with the new laws, but officials still ordered Ragamuffins to stop holding Sunday services -- or face a $250 fine for each day it didn't comply. The church made a different decision -- it sued.
With a tiny congregation and staff, there was no way the church could afford almost $2,000 in fines every week. Besides, Holcomb points out, "Federal law makes it very clear that cities cannot discriminate against religious uses and allow secular uses." Erik Stanley, who also works for ADF, can't believe the double standard. "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."
Unfortunately, Ragamuffins's situation is more common than you might think. Churches, home groups, synagogues, Bible studies, and schools have run smack dab into this local intolerance for religious exercise. But, thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, cities who want to exploit or discriminate against faith-based groups will have a lot tougher time of it now. On Wednesday, the Justice Department put its foot down against these subtle attacks on religious freedom. In a speech at the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, Jeff Sessions announced a new "Place to Worship" initiative that would enforce the protections that already exist for churches like Redemption when it comes to buying, building, expanding, or rent facilities.
"The Constitution doesn't just protect freedom to worship in private," Sessions pointed out, "it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together. 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." A lot of Americans, he went on, think their religious freedom is under attack.
This feeling is understandable. Religious Americans have heard themselves called 'deplorables.' They've heard themselves called 'bitter clingers.' I believe this concern -- this unease -- is one reason that President Trump was elected. He made a promise that was heard. In substance, he said he respected people of faith and he promised to protect them in the free exercise of their faith. This promise was well received. Since day one, he has been delivering on that promise. Under a different president, I'm not sure this would have been on the agenda.
As part of this new Justice initiative, Sessions's team is also launching a suit against a New Jersey town that blocked a group of orthodox Jews from moving their meetings out of a single-family home into a new building. The city refused their request, turned down construction applications, and even went so far as to seize property that the Valley Chabad tried to buy for a school. "In order to sustain a democracy, it is necessary that we exercise true tolerance," Sessions insisted. "...We shouldn't have to go to court to co-exist in peace."
This is a major step forward for Americans of all faiths. For a year and a half, this administration has shown the world that it's fully committed to defending the freedom of everyone to live and work according to their beliefs. After two terms of Barack Obama, this president is advancing values we care about -- instead of forcing us to abandon our faith just to enter the public square. That's why I have trouble understanding the Christians in the "Never Trump" gallery that continue to criticize not only the Trump administration but those who support the good they have done. At some point, it's time to acknowledge how much good Trump's election has done -- specifically for people of faith.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.