Edisto Island pastor shares insights gained from legal suit

In successfully concluding the church’s lawsuit against the town of Edisto Beach in August, the pastor of Redeemer Fellowship feels he’s gained three important insights worth sharing with other Southern Baptists.

A U.S. District Court in South Carolina has filed a statement of interest in favor of Redeemer Fellowship’s claim that town leaders violated the church’s rights under the First Amendment when they barred it from renting space at the town’s Civic Center.

Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Beach made headlines when, after renting the center on two previous occasions in April and May of last year, church leaders sought a more long-term rental agreement and the town council denied its application. Council members then amended the facility use guidelines in June to bar rentals for religious worship services, citing separation of church and state concerns.

The district court subsequently stated that far from being a justification for barring the fledgling church plant from using the facility, the Constitution requires that churches be allowed to rent facilities on an equal basis with other community groups. On Dec. 31, however, town leaders already had voluntarily decided to rescind the ban.

“After we contemplated it, thought through it, prayed through it, we decided that it was a good thing to consider pushing back,” said Redeemer Fellowship Pastor Rob Heath, recalling the church’s reasoning for pursuing legal action.

“We had joined Alliance Defending Freedom as a way of helping us to be sure that we got all of our founding documents correct, and realized when this came up that really their primary work is in defending freedom,” he added. “So we contacted them, and basically we sued the city over the right to use the civic center and won.”

“The town was required to pay damages, which were pretty minimal, and about half of our legal fees, which were not insignificant,” Heath said. While damages only totaled about $3,000, attorney’s fees were in excess of $100,000.

Now that the dust has settled, Heath offers these insights from the experience:

“First, I thought it was something noteworthy to say: ‘Hey, this is the kind of stuff that’s going on right here in little old South Carolina, and we should be prepared for it to be able to respond firmly, biblically, graciously. 

“It’s worth saying, ‘This is not right.’” Heath said. “We really landed on what people know as the golden rule, in thinking, ‘Okay, we’re in a position to say this shouldn’t be done to us or to others, and it’s worth pushing back on.’”

A second thing he saw is the grace of God in providing for and guiding Redeemer Fellowship through this time. He’s now seeking God’s guidance in restoring some of the relationships and in healing some of the bruised egos.

Heath also commends the work of Alliance Defending Freedom. “They were spectacular,” he said. “They were so gracious, they were so efficient.

“The attorneys for the town and their insurance company that got involved in it when the bills began to mount, they just frankly were no match for the passion and giftedness of the folks from Alliance Defending Freedom,” Heath said.

Redeemer Fellowship currently meets in an elementary school that is on the island, but in Charleston County, he said, pointing out that it is also a public building.

“The church is doing well, we’re growing, we’re finding our footing,” Heath said. “But we’re reaching some people and are really having some fruitful ministry to the community, to the elementary school that we’re meeting in, and really have some great works going on in investing in other mission ventures.”

As for the town, the council has made “as public a commitment as you could hope for that they will not do anything like that again,” Heath said. “That was really what we were aiming for, was for them to recognize this was a constitutionally wrong decision, a bad neighbor decision, frankly.”