Sometimes you need a lawyer

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By John Barnhart

    Liberals seem determined to take captive every thought that runs counter to their ideology, and suppress it. This can often lead to conflicts such as the one the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is having with the Washington D. C. City Council.

    Not all conflicts, however, are that bad and some may simply be a case of a misunderstanding on the part of government officials. One such situation happened here in Bedford County a few years ago.

    The Cowboy Church, which holds non-traditional worship in non-traditional venues in an effort to reach people who would not normally go to a church, began meeting in a horse barn. The barn was part of a horse auction facility and was really designed primarily to provide a covered spectator area for people.

    Not long after this church began meeting there, the owner received a letter from Bedford County stating that he was in violation of the county’s zoning ordinance and the state building code. He was told that allowing the Cowboy Church to meet there one evening per week constituted a change in use of the building.

    After some months, the county backed off and admitted it was in error. Getting a new director of community development may have helped. George Nester, who has since left to become county administrator of a neighboring county, came on board and was clearly interested in avoiding conflict between local government and churches’ constitutional right to worship.

    He chaired a committee of planning commission members and church representatives that recommended some changes to the zoning ordinance, that were ultimately adopted by the board of supervisors, to make sure it didn’t step on anybody’s freedom of worship. It also set up a system to resolve any conflicts, or perceived conflicts, that could arise in the future.

    Everybody involved with this process was satisfied with the result.

    Sometimes, however, local government is less conciliatory and you have to get a lawyer to make them see the error of their ways.

    This happened when the U.S. Space and Rocket Center (USSRC) in Huntsville, Ala., which advertises its auditorium as an attractive facility for any type and any size event, refused to rent its theater for the screening of a film challenging the theory of evolution. The reason for refusing to rent the auditorium to Vision Forum Ministries for the film is that the USSRC didn’t approve of the film’s content.

    Vision Forum Ministries got a lawyer. The Alliance Defense Fund sent USSRC a letter stating that when authorities open a public facility up for indiscriminate use by the public, they may not deny its use to one group because they don’t like that group’s viewpoint. The letter pointed out that the USSRC was engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.

    The USSRC immediately reversed its decision and Vision Forum was allowed to rent the theater to show its film last month.

    It’s important that Christians, when we believe we are being discriminated against by public authorities, don’t storm into a conflict with chips on our shoulders. The problem may turn out to be only a misunderstanding and we can accomplish a lot just by treating these people like we would like them to treat us.

    In other cases, we may be faced with authorities who don’t like what we believe and are actually trying to censor us. We still need to be polite and reasonable. But, we also need to fight back with every legal means at our disposal. This is still America and the Constitution still guarantees religious freedom. Let’s not let it slip away.