After outgrowing its current meeting space, a Maine church approached the local school board about renting a facility at the high school to hold worship services. But the school board reportedly decided to reject the church's application after questioning the congregation's stance on cultural issues like gender identity.
As a result, attorneys for Advocates for Faith and Freedom (AFF), a non-profit law firm, representing The Pines Church in Bangor, filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against the Hermon School Committee. The church claims the school board violated its rights under the First Amendment, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and under Maine's public accommodations laws.
"Public institutions that seek to lease their facilities for revenue should not be able to discriminate based on religious or political conditions," said Legal Counsel and Vice President for Advocates for Faith & Freedom Mariah Gondeiro in a press release. "The Hermon School Committee has a history of leasing their properties to secular organizations without persecution. We are advocating for fair and equitable treatment under the law, and The Pines Church was denied that opportunity by the Hermon School Committee."
In November 2022, The Pines Church was negotiating a deal with HSD to rent space at Hermon High School for its Sunday services when members of the committee presented the church with questions about the church's religious beliefs, such as its stance on gay marriage, abortion, "conversion therapy", gender reassignment treatment, and sexual education for youth, according to the AFF.
According to the 18-page complaint, "Organizations seeking short-term leases must also complete HSD's Building/Facilities Request Form. This is the only form required to be completed by organizations and seeks basic information regarding the areas requested and dates/times requested. No inquiry is made into the beliefs of the organization."
Other secular organizations currently rent space at Hermon High School including Black Bear Basketball, Hermon Recreation, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, and various baseball groups.
The church had also told the school district it would pay $1,000 a month for the space in the high school, $400 more than the original rental price, according to court documents.
Matt Gioia, the Pine Church's pastor, had three separate meetings with Superintendent Micah Grant, who asked Gioia to make a written proposal to the committee and also make an oral presentation at the next school board meeting.
After Gioia's presentation in which he proposed to lease the high school for six months or one year, school board member Chris McLaughlin sent an email to the superintendent in which he said he wanted to get a better sense of how the church approaches issues of "diversity, equity, and inclusion."
According to the lawsuit, the email contained follow-up questions from the board inquiring about the church's beliefs on same-sex marriage, abortion, gender-altering medical care, therapy for LGBTQ individuals, and sex education for youth.
The superintendent forwarded the email to Gioia who did not answer McLaughlin's questions.
The Maine Wire's Editor-in-Chief Steve Robinson noted in his news article published Feb. 7 that the school board member's email shows discrimination against the Pine Church over their religious beliefs.
"McLaughlin doesn't say in the email how Gioia's potential answers to these questions would affect his stance on allowing the church to rent Hermon's space, but the implication seems clear: Unless the Christians of Pines Church agreed with McLaughlin about taxpayer-funded abortions, sex-change surgeries, and birth control for kids, then McLaughlin wouldn't support their rental agreement," Robinson wrote.
"Upon information and belief, the committee did not ask these questions to other lease applicants," according to the complaint.
The school board met on Dec. 12, 2022, to consider Pastor Gioia's proposal to lease the high school for six months or one year and denied the church's lease application, because of its religious beliefs on abortion, sexual orientation, gender reassignment, therapy for LGBT-attraction, and gay marriage.
Instead, the board voted to rent school facilities on a month-to-month lease, despite Gioia earlier telling board members a month-to-month lease would not work for the church because it makes it impossible for the congregation to plan and budget, the lawsuit explains.
"We are understandably disappointed with the process in which we had to go through, but we are not discouraged," Pastor Matt Gioia said in a statement. "We have seen the Lord move through our church and grow our community so much since our founding. We are hopeful that we will be able to continue our worship and fellowship without discrimination."
The lawsuit asks the court to award the Pine Church compensatory damages for the violation of the church's constitutional rights, to order the school board to provide the congregation with a six-month or year-long lease, as well as court costs and attorney's fees.
CBN News has reached out to Superintendent Grant and the Hermon School Committee for comment. We'll post it here if we hear back.
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