by Ethan Tong • 4 min read
First Liberty recently secured a victory for Awaken Church, a non-denominational congregation in San Diego, California. For a Christmas program, the church requested to rent the Rady Shell, a concert venue owned by the San Diego Symphony Orchestra Association. The association refused, saying it would not rent to religious organizations. We sent a demand letter, explaining that these actions were illegal. Within days, venue officials changed their decision and offered to rent to Awaken Church.
Back in May, the church requested to rent the facility for their play, The Night of Christmas. The director of venue rentals informed them they could have either December 2nd or 3rd, depending on the date chosen by another previous renter. The other renter had three days to choose their date, according to the director.
Two weeks passed without any follow up or response. When Awaken Church finally received an email from the director, it was not an email confirming the date. The email explained that the association does not have a policy on renting to religious organizations. It said:
“Until we have time to consider this internally, we have decided we must pass on this rental and any other potential rentals to religious organizations. As you know, The Shell is in high demand, and we are still determining how we prioritize our limited rental availability so that supporting our artistic mission is the primary consideration.”
Our demand letter explained that the association’s refusal to rent to the Church expressly based on its status as a religious organization, constitutes a “flagrant violation of federal and state laws that prohibit religious discrimination.” Under federal law, any motion-picture house, theater, concert hall, sports arena, stadium or other place of exhibition or entertainment—such as the Rady Shell—is considered a place of public accommodation. Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 expressly protects against religious discrimination in these facilities:
“All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Similarly, California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act forbids refusals to “contract with…any person in this state on account of” religion.
Though association officials started off by making the wrong decision, they did the right thing by ceasing their unlawful actions and agreeing to rent the venue to the church as originally agreed. Awaken Church’s pastor, Jurgen Matthesius, responded:
“We are overjoyed that the Rady Shell has opened its doors to us. We look forward to inviting the community to experience the joy of Christmas.”
Treating houses of worship more harshly or unfairly on the basis of religion is unconscionable. Religious organizations and people of faith in America should not be subject to such brazen discrimination.
Awaken Church is now free to live out its faith. But the battle to secure religious freedom for houses of worship in America is far from over. Churches, temples and synagogues continue to confront religious discrimination. Please donate to First Liberty today, so we can keep fighting—and winning—for houses of worship across the country.