Church ‘forced to forgo thousands of dollars that could be better invested in serving their students…’
(Michael Barnes, Liberty Headlines) A Florida church has been targeted by its local government for offering a faith-based education to at-risk children without getting government permission—which it jumped through hoops to obtain.
“The government can’t discriminate against churches or schools simply because they are religious,” said Christiana Holcomb, ADF’s legal counsel, on Tuesday while announcing a federal lawsuit on behalf of Crosspoint Church and its Englewood Christian School.
“Despite making every effort to work with the county and being forced to forgo thousands of dollars that could be better invested in serving their students, Crosspoint Church is now being told they must either stop educating children or pay severe fines,” added Holcomb.
In 2013, the Sarasota, Fla.-based church started a Christian school to serve low-income and troubled students, including those with learning disabilities.
At the time, said the church’s pastor, Mark Lindsey, the school effort encountered few obstacles. “Everything fell into place,” Lindsey said. “We felt the Lord was behind it.”
But the divine providence was not to last.
For three years, the church’s school offered individualized attention and a faith-based curriculum—until county officials decided that Crosspoint needed to obtain a “special exemption.”
What followed was a frustrating attempt to comply with increasingly narrow demands that ultimately sought to shut down the school, ADF said.
First, the so-called special exemption was required for the school to continue operating in its own building. Crosspoint complied, spending more than $10,000 in the process.
Then, the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners rejected the church’s application and withheld the exemption. Next came a threat to impose fines of $250 a day if the church keeps its faith-based school open on its own property—which the county says is improper.
But ADF said the threat constitutes outright religious discrimination.
In its compliant, the group cites Florida law, which states that any charter school is legally allowed to operate in a church building. Sarasota County also allows secular organizations to operate charter schools in any number of locations without seeking special exceptions.
Effectively, Sarasota County allows for a secular school to operate at a church, but not a Christian school to operate at a Christian church.
“Crosspoint Church simply seeks to serve the community by providing a quality Christian education to children with learning disabilities and that come from underprivileged homes,” said Kyle McCutcheon, co-legal counsel. “Unfortunately, Sarasota County is blocking this valuable community service with arbitrary and expensive regulation.”
Alliance Defending Freedom, which comprises more than 3,300 member-attorneys, filed the lawsuit, Englewood Church v. Sarasota County, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.