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Failed Business Sues ‘Bigot’ Church

A Portlandia challenge to religious liberty and free association
Failed Business Sues ‘Bigot’ Church

A reader sends in the article below, with this comment:

Here’s a story about one of your main predictions (“Error has No Rights”) of eroding rights for religious communities. In this case, it’s a frontal challenge to Freedom of (non-)Association for a Catholic Diocese. Bake the cake, Bigot! I’m an atheist but this is an appalling frontal challenge to the rights of private association, private property, religious liberty.

Here’s the story:

A Portland business that claims its reputation nosedived after it turned away an LGBTQ customer based on orders from Holy Rosary Church filed a $2.3 million lawsuit this week against the church.

Ambridge Event Center rented out a large space at 1333 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. to the public for conventions, weddings and other parties, according to the lawsuit. The business leased the space from the building’s owner, Holy Rosary Church, and was under “strict orders” laid out in a “morals clause” to turn away business from the gay and lesbian community, the suit states.

In February 2015, the Ambridge Event Center followed the church’s orders by telling an African American LGBTQ support group, the PFLAG Portland Black Chapter, that it couldn’t rent out the space for the group’s annual party, according to the suit and media coverage at the time.

After a spate of bad press, Ambridge Event Center claims that government agencies and businesses not associated with the LGBTQ community wanted nothing to do with the event center, the suit says.

Can the church do this? More:

Christine Lewis, the labor bureau’s legislative director, said she couldn’t give a blanket answer as to whether churches in Oregon can legally refuse to allow gay groups to rent out their spaces. That depends on “the unique facts of each case,” she said. She also pointed to an exception in the state’s anti-discrimination law that allows religious groups to discriminate based on sexual orientation under some circumstances.

I can’t see how this lawsuit can proceed, unless somehow the church has run afoul of the anti-discrimination law. Maybe it did. Six years ago, a New Jersey judge ruled against the Methodist church in a similar case there.  A lot depends on the meaning of “some circumstances.” Still, note that no official complaint was filed against the church in this matter. The Ambridge plaintiff signed that lease knowing full well what its restrictions were. Maybe a court will find those restrictions illegal, but is that really what this case is about? Help me out, lawyers.

Whether or not the plaintiff succeeds, this will not be the last challenge of this sort against churches. And then there’s the matter of the Court of Public Opinion. Portland is a cultural outlier, granted, but it will be interesting to observe whether and how churches who stick to traditional teaching on LGBT are made into pariahs — and whether plaintiffs find ways of punishing them. If an LGBT activist group targets a private business for working with a church it considers to be anti-LGBT, and its campaign results in that business going under, will the business owners take the church to court seeking damages? It would seem to me to be a frivolous lawsuit, but then again, in this climate, who knows? Again, I am eager to hear from readers who understand the law.

The fact that Holy Rosary Church has to defend itself in this ridiculous lawsuit is a burden on a charitable organization that no doubt operates on a very tight margin.



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