Anglican Congregation Asserts First Amendment Rights, Effects Change in City Policy

In May, Shepherd’s Heart Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia will hold a concert at Old Town Square Park as an outreach to the community. What may sound like a typical event in any American town is instead a remarkable story of a small church’s perseverance through an unexpected struggle for religious liberty.

Two years ago, church member Pat Broderick first had the idea to hold a gathering at a city park but was subsequently denied access by the park manager because the church wanted to play contemporary Christian music.

“It was just our way of giving back to the community and letting them know we were down the street if anybody wanted any help or anything like that,” said Broderick.

Shepherd’s Heart is a small yet faithful congregation of about 40-50 members started by the late Fr. Harold Hammond in 1990, but currently without a full-time rector.

In 2016, Shepherd’s Heart leaders and members were challenged to brainstorm about ways to reach out to the community. After watching the city tear down an old gas station and replace it with a beautiful park, Broderick got the idea, especially given the park is “right around the corner from the church.”

Upon “following the prompting of the Holy Spirit,” as she described it, Broderick submitted a request to the city to use the park. At first, she says, there was no problem. But when she answered their follow-up questions and the city learned they would play Christian music, the city told her they could not partner with a religious organization and associate church and state.

“I just got so depressed and so down-hearted,” said Broderick, describing her reaction to the denial. “[That feeling] never went away and a voice in my head said ‘persevere, persevere.’”

A great woman of prayer, Pat returned to the training she had received from Fr. Harold: sit still, be quiet, and listen. “I just prayed. I didn’t know what else to do.” Pat had waited for two months before being given the opportunity and deciding to act. That’s when she reached out to a new member at the church she knew to be an attorney.

“Pat pulled me aside one Sunday morning after the service to talk about the issue.  She knew I was an attorney and wanted to know my opinion.  I told her that I wasn’t an expert, and I’m not Virginia barred, so I couldn’t give her legal advice.  But, once upon a time, I did take first amendment in law school, and the whole situation smacked of content restriction,” described Charles Gorman, long-time Anglican, attorney, and member of Shepherd’s Heart.

The city’s policy did not expressly prohibit use of the park for religious activities or by religious groups. Instead, the city’s denial of the application was based on unchecked, arbitrary discretion – which is Constitutionally invalid.

Under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, religious expression and speech are protected in traditional public forums such as public parks like that of Old Town Square in Fairfax. City restrictions on such freedoms are heavily scrutinized and must not discriminate against a particular viewpoint. Further, in traditional public forums, state actors cannot censor people or groups based on the content of their speech, except when there is a compelling state purpose and the restriction is both necessary and the wording narrowly tailored to achieve that purpose. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has ruled in other similar cases that in circumstances like these in which the forum is available to others and the event is open to the public, there is no Establishment Clause conflict.1  Additionally, in order for the state to require permits (i.e. approval) as a prerequisite for individuals or groups to engage in protected speech, it must follow very strict and objective criteria in decision making. To base such permits on vague discretion by officials making the individual decisions may be considered a prior restraint on protected speech and a violation of the First Amendment.

Fairfax City’s denial of Shepherd’s Heart’s application “was classic prior restraint, which is exactly what the Founders wanted to prevent when they drafted the First Amendment,” explained Gorman. “We used the Freedom of Information Act to get access to the city’s park policies.  Even though they said it wasn’t allowed, there was nothing in writing to back it up.  It was completely arbitrary.”

Gorman, feeling convinced of the Constitutional violation, contacted the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis, Tennessee who took on the case pro-bono.

“The city cannot treat a Christian group differently just because it’s Christian. All that Shepherd’s Heart wanted to do was just like what other groups had done but with contemporary Christian music,” explained attorney Nate Kellum of the Center for Religious Expression who handled the case.

“I can’t say it enough: I have tremendous respect for Shepherd’s Heart and how they handled themselves,” Kellum applauded. “They never wanted a lawsuit, they just wanted to be a part of the community.”

Fr. Jerry Brown, a bi-vocational Associate Rector at Shepherd’s Heart, was at first unsettled about whether to pursue the case. “[The City’s policy was] wrong, but at the same time, is this something worth fighting?”

His tiny parish had little resources, and the city had plenty. On top of that, he was greatly concerned to not take the church away from its calling to worship God and send out the Gospel. At the same time, the efforts of the church to do so were being strangled illegally by the city.

Shepherd’s Heart turned to the Lord, seeking Him in prayer throughout the process. They sought Him for wisdom whether to pursue the case. They sought Him for guidance in working with the attorneys. They sought Him for their freedom and the ability to use the park.

“We prayed about it. I,” Fr. Jerry said, “had a peace about going forward. And everybody together said, ‘let’s go for it.’”

On October 26, 2017, Shepherd’s Heart Church and the City of Fairfax, Virginia signed a settlement agreement leading to significant changes in city policy with respect to church access to city parks. It is now expressly written in city policy that religious activities are permissible uses of the city’s parks.

“Fr. Jerry sent me an email the morning he was going to go to Federal Court to settle the case.  He outlined what they were agreeing to, and my jaw almost hit the floor. We got everything we wanted and then some,” Gorman exclaimed. Upon hearing of the settlement, Broderick shouted to the Lord. “Yes, Lord! …I was just so excited!” she recalls.

Attorney Nate Kellum admitted, “I am really, really pleased with the result.”

For those involved, this is an impactful result, but they also realize how impactful this case is beyond their city. Broderick, Gorman, and Brown all noted that Christians in our society tend to not know their rights and are confused by the language of the “separation of church and state” and the “establishment clause” so readily thrown at them by government entities. Broderick herself admits that she didn’t know her rights, but she knew the denial of her request to use the park because of the faith-based content of the music did not seem right.

Gorman said, “It was amazing to me the number of people I spoke with, when telling them about our case, who genuinely thought we were wrong. That we, as a church, shouldn’t be allowed in a public square.  But that’s not the law.”

According to the First Liberty Institute, a leading religious liberties litigation group out of Plano, Texas, the United States has seen a 133% increase in attacks on religious liberty in just five years.2  As renowned religious liberties attorney and CEO of First Liberty Institute, Kelly Shackleford, puts it, “Americans have entered a tipping point.” 3

Gorman explains, “there is so much misinformation and confusion about the law that many people give up before they even get started. If we don’t fight for our rights, no one else will.” And the law is – in fact - on our side. “Our country needs us! It needs you!”

According to Kellum, “this is a very important result…[it’s time] for churches, for Christians, to really be bold enough to be able to stand up for our beliefs and the ability to share our beliefs.”

To do that, we must be confident in our faith and confident in our rights, just like Shepherd’s Heart Anglican Church in Fairfax, Virginia.


1 See Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001); Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981); Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993).

2 First Liberty Institute, Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America (2017), https://firstliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/UNDENIABLE_ONLINE-1.pdf

3Shackleford, Kelly, A Time to Stand 2016, https://firstliberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2016_ATTS_3.625x8.75_WEB.pdf


Rachel Thebeau is the Communications Associate for the Anglican Church in North America. She is a licensed attorney and a Blackstone Legal Fellow with Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the nation’s leading religious liberties organizations.

 

Life Matters

by the Rev. Georgette Forney

Stephanie Gray recently appeared on my Facebook newsfeed in a video that featured her speaking at Google headquarters. I decided to watch and was amazed. Like “TED” talks, Google Talks try to “feature the world’s most influential thinkers, creators, makers and doers all in one place.” As I watched her presentation, I was impressed with the clarity and depth of her message, and was equally amazed that she was speaking at Google. Her message was about how to stand for the sanctity of human life.

She focused on how to start conversations and engage people without offending those on the opposite side of the opinion spectrum. She used questions and answers to lead to productive dialogue in making the case for life. She did a phenomenal job of weaving stories together to create relatable and real analogies to the pro-life and pro-choice arguments.

At the end of each discussion point, she brought the conversation back to how the ultimate affirmative answer supports life. Stephanie explained that when starting conversations, whether in an environment that’s friendly or not, it is best to begin with open-ended questions such as “Who inspires you, and why?” She explained that while people she interviewed often gave very different answers to the first question on who inspires them, it was the second question of “why” that produced very similar responses. Stephanie found that people were usually inspired by those who had suffered some kind of great difficulty, trial, or challenge and had overcome it.

What did she find was so similar in their responses? How had they overcome their great challenges?

1. Putting others before themselves. Love is universally attractive and deep down we are all attracted to selflessness.

2. They have perspective. Sometimes suffering is unavoidable, but despair is avoidable if we give that suffering meaning.

3. They do the right thing, even when it is hard.

Stephanie concluded her Google Talk by challenging her audience to follow the example of those who inspire them
– to put others before themselves, gain some perspective on tough circumstances, and do the right thing, even when it is hard. Her challenge changed the conversation and opened the door to more conversation on why standing for life can make all the difference.

Stephanie was Executive Director for twelve years of the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform. She now serves on the faculty at Blackstone Legal Fellowship where she trains law students from around the world about conversing persuasively on sanctity of life issues. She is author of Love Unleashes Life: Abortion & the Art of Communicating Truth as well as A Physician’s Guide to Discussing Abortion. Stephanie holds
a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University
of British Columbia in Vancouver, and a Certification (with Distinction) in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Stephanie will be one of the featured speakers at “Life Summit 2018: Mobilizing the Church for Life,” co-sponsored by Anglicans for Life and the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic. It will be held at Falls Church Anglican (Falls Church, VA) on January 18, 2018.

The Rev. Georgette Forney is President of Anglicans for Life and co-founder of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign.

To learn more or to register for Life Summit 2018, as well as the Life Symposium in San Francisco, CA, visit https://anglicansforlife.org/summit-2018.

Stephanie’s talk, “Abortion: From Controversy to Civility,” is available online here: https://youtu.be/DzzfSq2DEc4

 

The Lord Will Build His Church

by Matthew Swab

With his affable personality and genuine nature, it is easy to imagine Fr. Jarrett Fontenot leading a congregation, both from the pulpit and through daily life. As a bi-vocational priest, he jokes that I am catching him during his “transition between identities.” Indeed, as our conversation concludes I can hear the background noise has shifted from the sound of children kissing Daddy goodbye to the buzz of a busy office.

Jarrett is the rector of Holy Cross Anglican in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a 50-person parish that meets for Sunday worship in a Cadillac dealership overlooking the interstate. The location is not ideal, but the parish has exciting plans for the future. Jarrett is also a call center manager for The National Center for Disaster Fraud at Louisiana State University (LSU). The Center was established after Hurricane Katrina and processes calls from across the country before routing them to the appropriate federal agencies. Our conversation is a week after Hurricane Harvey and just days before Irma is expected to hit Florida. He is busy, but does not hesitate to make time for me.

A Louisiana native, Jarrett came to faith as a teenager in a non-denominational Bible church. Throughout his college years at LSU, he engaged with various evangelical traditions as his faith grew and deepened. During that time, he met his wife, Elizabeth, through Campus Crusade. While finishing a Masters Degree in Public Administration and Non-profit Management, he felt a call to seminary. And so, at the age of 26, he and Elizabeth moved from Louisiana to Massachusetts to attend Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

While in Massachusetts, Jarrett and Elizabeth attended an Anglican church in the midst of moving into what would become the Anglican Church in North America. The transparency, respect, and grace with which the leaders of the church handled the transition was eye-opening and inspiring for the Fontenots, deepening their affinity for Anglicanism.

Upon graduating from Gordon-Conwell, they made a daring move to pursue a three-year program with a hospital in the United Arab Emirates. Elizabeth used her
skills as a nurse while Jarrett employed his
talents in administration. During that time, they
helped to plant St. Timothy’s in Al Ain, a mission plant of St. Andrews in Abu Dhabi. Through that work, Jarrett realized his call to the pastorate. When their time with the hospital was cut short, they returned to Baton Rouge with a new calling in their hearts and a baby boy in their arms!

Jarrett was ordained to the priesthood in June 2013, but their church in Louisiana had closed in May 2013. He recalls thinking, “This is not the way you’re supposed to do this!” Eight months later, he received a phone call. An Episcopal priest asked for help moving his parish to the Anglican Church in North America. Though it was not what he had anticipated, Jarrett agreed and they began the hard work of re-planting the congregation as Holy Cross Anglican.

In December 2015, Jarrett took on the role of head rector
at Holy Cross and, even after almost two years, he humbly admits there is a constant sense of wondering, “How should we do this? Are we going about it the right way?” Having re-planted a congregation, there is a challenge to respect and honor the existing parish while also stepping forward into the future to establish a clear vision for the ministry.

Throughout our conversation, he refers to the “Kingdom perspective” that he strives to maintain. There are times when the needs of a family surpass what he or his parish can support. Rather than simply turn them away, though, he directs them to another ministry equipped to serve them. He does this
by intentionally connecting with healthy churches throughout the community. Every other week, he meets with pastors from another denomination to discuss both personal and parish needs. They keep one another accountable and, through their relationships, better serve the community of Baton Rouge.

That is why he is so excited about the
future of Holy Cross. They have been given an opportunity to move to a new, more accessible location that puts them in the middle of several diverse neighborhoods. As they consider the possibility of this new location, they are already talking to and listening to the people of the community to determine how they can best serve them.

With such changes on the horizon and with encouragement from his Bishop, Jarrett hopes to go full-time as rector in the near future. He realizes, however, that moving out of bi- vocational ministry will require planning, patience, and several years to prepare. The possibility of these changes presents wonderful and exciting potential for Holy Cross Anglican. While Jarrett knows it may be a long process, he has learned to be patient and wait on the Lord to build His Church.