Ask ELi: What about the Church Using MacDonald Middle School?
An ELi reader wrote in outraged that The Commons Church is using MacDonald Middle School as its gathering place. The church meets on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. at the school, a facility owned by East Lansing Public Schools (ELPS).
The reader is upset because of the idea of an ELPS school being used for a church whose teachings are, in the reader’s words, “right-wing misogynist” and “homophobic.”
The Doctrinal Statement of the church says that “marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime” and says this is the appropriate “channel of sexual expression according to biblical standards.”
The church also holds that “The husband and wife are of equal worth before God,” but “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”
The church has indicated that it has decided to locate in East Lansing in order to recruit college students from MSU and LCC and other nearby colleges and universities; to be near the state capitol; to reach international students; and to help the “spiritual climate” of East Lansing.
Its website says that East Lansing presents a great opportunity because “New development is happening all over the place, new companies are moving to the city, and new people are following suit.”
Why would the East Lansing Public School District rent to a church?
One source of revenue for public institutions is the rental of facilities that would otherwise go unused. MSU, the City of East Lansing, and East Lansing Public Schools all rent out space, and sometimes they rent their facilities to religious groups.
For example, every Sunday, the Covenant Life Community Church rents the auditorium at the Hannah Community Center, owned by the City of East Lansing. That church has a position on sexuality and marriage similar to The Common Church’s.
Many religious organizations in East Lansing have their own buildings – East Lansing is home to a wide variety of religious beliefs and practices – but some need to rent space.
Can the school district decide which religious viewpoints it wants to host with rented space?
Once a public institution decides to rent out space, it generally cannot discriminate among the viewpoints of those renting its space. To do so would mean, in effect, that the government is picking which religions or religious beliefs it supports.
When white nationalist Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute (NPI) came to speak at MSU – and we want to be clear, we are absolutely not likening these churches to Richard Spencer or NPI or suggesting they believe anything like what Spencer and NPI advocate – the question was raised whether MSU could discriminate against Spencer by denying him rental space on the basis of his beliefs.
The question was specifically raised in a lawsuit filed by NPI after MSU tried to deny Spencer a speaking venue. MSU had to settle and give Spencer space, which it did.
In conjunction with our reporting on that subject, we spoke with Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago and a nationally-recognized scholar in First Amendment law.
Stone explained that MSU was in an “unusual situation” specifically “because MSU has engaged in this economic activity designed to generate resources by renting out space to all comers. In effect, what it has done is create a public forum.”
When doing that, Stone explained, MSU “cannot discriminate on the basis of viewpoint.”
Could the School District do what the City has done with Country Mill?
The City of East Lansing’s administration discovered that a vendor at the East Lansing Farmers Market, Country Mill, would not host same-gender weddings at their farm in Charlotte. The owners of that business are Roman Catholic and it goes against their beliefs.
In response, City leaders changed the farmers’ market policy to say that if a business violated the City’s civil rights ordinance anywhere, it could not do business with the City.
That has led to a major lawsuit that has cost the City of East Lansing over $200,000. The case is not yet settled, and a judge has repeatedly allowed Country Mill to return to the market while the case plays out.
Mayor Mark Meadows has defended the City Council’s decision to spend that much money on this issue, saying he believes it is an extraordinarily important issue that will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The plaintiffs in the Country Mill case are having their legal expenses paid by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative religious legal defense organization that has used the case for extensive fundraising, including via national Catholic broadcasting networks. The City’s legal bills are being paid by the taxpayers of East Lansing.
There has also been a social cost of the Country Mill lawsuit, based on communications to ELi from readers: some residents of East Lansing feel that the City talks about welcoming all people and all cultures, but they feel that they are not really welcome, because they belong to conservative religious groups and traditions that they find are not generally tolerated or invited in public forums here.
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