Joel Belz: The discernment of judges

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, January 30th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. WORLD founder Joel Belz now on what it takes to get governments to honor the First Amendment.

JOEL BELZ, FOUNDER: Tired of bad news out of America’s court houses? Concerned that the religious liberty clause in our Bill of Rights means less and less in this terribly secular age?

Well, here’s a cheery note as the New Year gets under way. A judge in Green Bay, Wisc., ruled in December that churches—and other religious organizations as well—are free to preach and teach distinctives of their particular beliefs, even if those beliefs might at first appear to be in conflict with local civic ordinances.

The specific issue before the court was this: The city of DePere (a small Green Bay suburb of 23,000) had enacted several new non-discrimination policies. 

Most controversial was the focus on gender issues—gender identity and sexual orientation in housing, employment, advertising, and public accommodation.

From the beginning, the city said its policies applied to all “places of public accommodation”—and claimed that churches and other religious organizations were indeed such “places.”

But five DePere churches, along with a local religious broadcaster, responded with an emphatic dissent. And they were willing to go to court to test the matter.

The churches and the broadcaster argued that the city ordinance would forbid traditional and Biblical teaching—and thereby challenge their constitutionally protected freedom of speech. They argued also that hiring practices might be restricted, and that they might be penalized in the future for refusing to host homosexual weddings or similar events.

The churches also emphasized that if permitted to stand, the ordinance would be the first in America to deem churches as places of so-called “public accommodation.” The precedent might be enormous.

On the other hand, the city’s attorneys argued that any time a church opens to the public, outside their “traditional role as a house of worship,” that church should expect to have to live by the city’s values.

So what constituted “opening to the public”? The lawyers proposed a very broad measuring stick. One test, they suggested, might be whether a church allowed its facilities to be used as a polling place.

But Judge William Atkinson ruled otherwise. He said the DePere city ordinance was an unconstitutional violation of the fundamental right of churches to be free from having to compromise their sincerely held religious beliefs due to edicts from government.

Lending professional legal counsel assistance to the DePere churches and broadcaster was the Pacific Justice Institute—a California based but far-reaching organization devoted primarily to issues of religious liberty, parental rights, and sanctity of human life.

PJI’s lead attorney Brad Dacus says it’s possible the case may be appealed by DePere’s city council—which he told WORLD is an “extraordinarily obstinate body.” “We’ll just take that as it comes,” he said.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Joel Belz.

(Photo/David Farmbrough, Wikimedia Commons) Brown County Court House, Green Bay, Wisconsin. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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