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In courts we trust

March 13, 2023

How is a church like a brewery? This isn't a riddle. The answer is that it's not.

Milt Policzer

By Milt Policzer

Courthouse News columnist; racehorse owner and breeder; one of those guys who always got picked last.

No matter how you feel about religion, you’ve got to admit that legal disputes involving religion can get very weird.

A recent case in point: a dispute outlined in a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that, among other things, includes this statement: “On appeal, the Church asserts that the district court erred in concluding that the Church is not similarly situated to farm wineries and limited-license breweries.”

Does that sound like the court erred to you? Was the church planning on installing a bar next to its pew?

The answer to both questions is no. You can’t say you’re an alcohol purveyor and not serve alcohol.

You might think this was a pretty obvious conclusion and not worth the time of a lot of lawyers. Naturally, you’d be wrong. The case drew amicus briefs from The General Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty. There were briefs from The American Center for Law & Justice and the Yale Law School Free Exercise Clinic, among others.

The plaintiff was something called Alive Church of the Nazarene Inc., a church that bought 17 acres of land in Prince William County, Virginia, and wanted to hold services there. The problem was that the land was zoned for agricultural use so the church needed a Special Use Permit to operate there.

The Nazarenes actually had the permit but it came with a series of construction requirements that it couldn’t pay for. The county’s Zoning Administrator informed the church it could built with permits and hold the kind of events it wanted if it got a winery or brewery license.

So instead of finding another spot or raising money for the required construction, the church opted for wine or beer.

Problem solved? Well, almost. The church “completed nearly all of the steps necessary to qualify for the license” but then decided against it because that “would violate its sincerely held religious belief against the sale or promotion of alcohol.”

So they forgot about it while applying?

What followed was litigation over the religious right to ignore agricultural zoning.

There isn’t one.

Let’s be real. Every now and then I wonder if some judges live in the real world. A ruling might be logical but it might also not be practical. Or at least not practical for the winning side.

Recent case in point: a Mississippi federal judge’s ruling agreeing with a group of plaintiffs who claimed their free speech rights were violated by the state’s license plates bearing the motto “In God We Trust.”

The judge then did nothing about it except say the plaintiffs could just cover up the offending words.

“The Plaintiffs say that is cold comfort because over-zealous police officers and sheriff’s deputies will pull them over for obscuring ‘In God We Trust.’ Yes. That is an unavoidable risk. At the same time, a person subjected to such treatment is likely to prevail in his or her ensuing § 1983 lawsuit alleging a deprivation of constitutional rights.”

Right — after paying for a lawyer, spending time in court and learning about qualified immunity.

Advice to agnostics and atheists in Mississippi: don’t obscure the license plate. Just put a bumper sticker next to it that says, “No, we don’t really.”

Cops will be too mystified to pull you over.

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