ACLJ In Court As County Orders: Close Your Church OR Get a Liquor License
A church in northern Virginia is being asked by Prince William County – one of America’s richest counties in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. – to get a liquor license to function as a church on their property the way it lets breweries and wineries function. Think about the absurdity of that.
The church owned a piece of land that they wanted to operate on, so after going through the building and zoning permit process, they were told no – unless they obtained a liquor license. This church doesn’t even use wine in communion. Clearly, this was an attempt by the county to get revenue from a church -- and to keep a tax-exempt church from occupying pricy real estate with significant potential tax revenues for the county. The church would be tax-exempt at the local, state, and federal level.
This church specifically will not bow to the County’s demands and get a liquor license because of its congregation’s religious view on alcohol – which is completely normal considering the beliefs of some denominations. It is unacceptable to even ask this of the church. So, we are taking action. The ACLJ is representing the church and will file a lawsuit in federal court in Virginia early next week.
The law requires governments to treat churches on equal terms as other similar entities. It also requires governments to not substantially burden churches’ religious exercise unless it’s narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. Here the county does neither.
ACLJ Senior Counsel and Director of Policy Harry Hutchison explained the importance of maintaining our constitutional rights and what would happen if we don’t fight to defend them:
If at the end of the day, in order for a church to operate, they must get a liquor license – what is to prevent governing authorities to now impose other rules and other restrictions on a church? It is very important we take all of our constitutional rights seriously. The First Amendment is, for instance, linked with the Second Amendment, which is linked with the Third and Fourth Amendment. . . . So, we must take these attempts by Prince William County and other entities very seriously now, because there is indeed a slippery slope out there.
However, if the church were to go against their own beliefs and obtain a liquor license, then the county would “let” the church operate like a brewery or winery, so that then they can have events, gatherings, Christmas tree farms, and even pumpkin patches. The solution of the county is to discriminate against the church. If you want to operate a winery or brewery (and pay the tax), you are allowed. But to operate a church is not allowed.
Since when is a winery more valuable to the community than the church? ACLJ Senior Military Analyst and retired Colonel Wes Smith explained the reasoning behind this county’s decision:
As far as tax revenue goes, it would be more valuable to the county. This is a free exercise issue at large. The bottom line is they are telling this congregation you cannot function as a church. . . . But we will let you as if they have the authority to “let” them function as a church under the guise that you are a business that serves alcohol.
ACLJ Chief Counsel and my dad Jay Sekulow summed up how the federal laws and U.S. Constitution do not actually allow Prince William County to target the church this way:
Basically, they are saying don’t say you’re a church, church. But if you’ll operate like a winery or a brewery, we will let you operate. And then if you have a worship service then maybe that’ll be okay. That is not the way it works in the United States of America. It is certainly not the way it works under the First Amendment. In fact, that is not the way it works under statutory law also. It doesn’t operate that way under the Virginia Freedom of Religion Statute which is one of the broadest in the country – drafted by Thomas Jefferson.
Churches are irreplaceable to society, yet are always under attack. This is a core issue at the ACLJ and the reason we exist. That is why we are wasting no time and will be representing this church against Prince William County early next week in federal court.
Today’s full Sekulow broadcast is complete with even more analysis of Prince William County officials in Virginia sending a letter to a small church to close the church or get a liquor license.
Watch the full broadcast below.