Churches Seek Exemption From Wisconsin City Ordinance to Protect Right to Hire in Accordance With Faith

DE PERE, Wisc. — Five churches and a Christian radio station have filed suit in an effort to obtain an exemption from a Wisconsin city ordinance that they believe might prohibit them from declining to hire a candidate for employment because of their lifestyle choices, such as homosexuality and transgenderism.

In November 2017, the city council of De Pere passed an ordinance that prohibits employers and businesses from discriminating against a person based on their so-called “gender identity” and “sexual orientation.”

“[I]t is declared to be the public policy of this city to foster and enforce to the fullest extent of the law equal opportunity employment, housing and public accommodations without regard to actual or perceived age, color, family status, gender identity and/or gender expression, marital status, national origin/ancestry, race, religion, military service or veteran status, person with disability, sex, sexual orientation…” the ordinance reads in part.

As the statute does not include any language exempting religious nonprofits from the requirement, and as city officials reportedly have not provided any assurances that religious groups will not be affected, a number of churches have been concerned about how the ordinance might be enforced.

“As religious institutions, plaintiffs set various prerequisites and continual requirements for employment relative to hiring, discharge, terms, and conditions of employment based on religious beliefs and practice,” the legal complaint reads. “Such can include rules related to sexual orientation, sex, family and marital status, gender identity or expression and religious beliefs.”

“The plaintiffs’ religious exercise as it relates to employees includes not only a preference at the initial hire, but also requires adherence to faith and conduct throughout employment, both on and off the job,” it explains.

The churches also note that they allow outside groups to use their facilities at times, and would like to ensure that they maintain the right to only permit their property to be used consistent with their religious convictions.

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Read the lawsuit in full here.

The plaintiffs include Hope Lutheran Church, Crosspoint Church, Destiny Church, St. Mark Lutheran Church and Christ the Rock Church. Lakeshore Communications, which operates a local Christian radio station in De Pere, is also a plaintiff in the case.

Lakeshore remarked in a statement published by the Green Bay Press Gazette that the De Pere ordinance is “so broadly written that it would undermine constitutionally protected rights of churches and religious organizations to conduct their affairs in a manner consistent with our biblical mandates and principles.”

“We appealed to the De Pere City Council to take some time, consult with legal experts, and rewrite the ordinance in a way that would provide constitutionally protected rights of churches and religious organizations. They disregarded our appeal, passing the bill with Mayor Mike Walsh casting the tie-breaking vote for the ordinance,” it lamented.

“[W]e believe in freedom of religion, and we are surprised that the city council has refused to remember the churches, with all of the social issues out there. This is a state intrusion into the Church. It violates the Constitution of the United States, which says there should be free exercise of religion,” also remarked Jerry Lewin, the pastor of Crosspoint Church.

The City has not yet commented to the media on the lawsuit, but is holding a public meeting tonight at City Hall to answer questions that residents might have about the ordinance.

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