House of worship seeks reimbursement from city for legal costs and plans to continue its summer glee camp outreach to local children and families
First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, New York’s Glee Camp outreach has
served local children and their families each summer for the past three years.
Last week, the City of Auburn, New York withdrew its cease-and-desist order against First Presbyterian Church which demanded that the church stop its outreach to kids in the community through hosting a summer Glee Camp on the church’s own property.
“The City had no choice but to drop this lawsuit because the facts and the law are clearly on the side of the church,” says Hiram Sasser, First liberty Institute Director of Litigation. “Now that the city acceded to the church’s demand that it end this litigation, the final issue to be resolved will be the city’s reimbursement to the church for all of its costs and legal fees pursuant to federal statutory law. We look forward to restoring lost funds to the church that it may use for the good of serving the community rather than defending itself against frivolous prosecutions.”
CITY VIOLATED FEDERAL LAW
When the city sent the cease-and-desist order to the church in July 2014, the city stated that since the camp charged a fee for its summer Glee Camp it violated the city’s zoning ordinances.
In response, First liberty Institute and volunteer attorney Andrew Leja of Hiscock & Barclay LLP, then filed a brief in December 2014 on behalf of First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, New York, defending it from the cease-and-desist order. At the time, Sasser commented: “We don’t know why the City chose to discriminate against the Glee Camp. As we win cases like this one, we will continue to set valuable precedent for churches across the country, and we look forward to this church once again offering the summer Glee Camp to the community it has faithfully served for two centuries.”
In February 2015, at a hearing First liberty Institute asked Judge David B. Thurston to dismiss the case and argued that the city’s unlawful enforcement action should be dismissed because it violates the First Amendment and federal law’s Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA) of which its Equal Terms Clause provides that:
“[n]o government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc(b)(1).
A HISTORY OF COMMUNITY OUTREACH
Located in an R-2 Residential Zoning District, First Presbyterian Church conducted on its property many outreach programs from its campus where it has been located since 1975—including hosting veterans groups, prayer groups, grief support groups, youth and marriage retreats, and music festivals.
For the past three years, First Presbyterian Church donated part of its campus to host a musical theater summer camp—Glee Camp—to serve the community’s local children and their families. One of the church buildings is a 36,000 square-foot mansion that was constructed by Theodore Case, the inventor of sound recordings placed on film. When the home, which sat adjacent to the church’s property, became available for purchase, First Presbyterian Church saw this as an opportunity to acquire the home and expand the congregation’s outreach to the surrounding community.
In order to offset costs of instructors and materials for the three-week-long session that includes singing, dancing, and acting classes, young campers paid a fee. The church made no profit from hosting the Glee Camp.
Rev. Eileen Winter explained in her affidavit that the church hosted the Glee Camp to further its religious mission by helping children develop their musical skills and providing a way for the surrounding community to learn more about First Presbyterian Church.
“[Glee Camp] brings in persons with whom we want to build a faith relationship who may be reluctant to visit our church or may be looking for a church home. . . . The camp advances the church’s religious mission of supporting the community and the love of music. . . . [And] the camp trains an upcoming generation of future worship leaders and participants. . . .”
INCREASING DISCRIMINATION AGAINST HOUSES OF WORSHIP
While First liberty Institute is grateful for this victory for First Presbyterian Church, it continues to see an alarming trend of discrimination against houses of worship. The national non-profit religious liberty law firm is currently representing Congregation Toras Chaim in a lawsuit brought by the City of Dallas, Texas and has also documented more of this pattern in its annual survey, UNDENIABLE: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America.
First liberty Institute also achieved recent court victories, including Opulent Life Church v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi, when a city tried to ban a small African-American church from a downtown area, setting a precedent for tens of thousands of churches and synagogues. But much courtroom work remains to be done to apply this precedent, and other law, to case after case, and First liberty Institute remains committed to fight for the survival of houses of worship and others who are unlawfully oppressed, burden, or outlawed by government entities across America.
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About First liberty Institute
First liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.