An evangelical church has sued the Hermon School Department alleging the board discriminated against it when members declined to lease the high school auditorium for worship services.
The complaint, filed last week in U.S. District Court in Bangor, alleges the school board violated the First and 14th amendments, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and Maine’s public accommodation law by asking about the church’s beliefs on same-sex marriage, abortion, gender affirming medical care, conversion therapy for LGBTQ people and sex education for youth.
The Pines Church adheres to a literal interpretation of the Bible.
The non-denominational church is asking U.S. District Judge Lance Walker to order the school district to offer the church a six- or 12-month lease and award it unspecified damages. The church can rent the school on a month-to-month basis but Pastor Matt Gioia has said that does not meet its needs for growth.
School districts may not deny rental space to houses of worship if they allow community groups such as scout troops, community theater companies and/or political groups when school is not in session, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
The church currently holds services at the Spotlight Cinema on Stillwater Avenue in Orono but claims a lease and use of Hermon High School would allow the congregation to better budget and plan for its future, according to the complaint. The church has a month-to-month lease with the movie theater.
The school committee voted 4-1 in December to offer the Pines Church a month-to-month lease rather than the year-long lease it had requested.
The church is represented by Advocates for Faith & Freedom, a non-profit law firm “dedicated to protecting constitutional and religious liberty in the courts,” according to its website.
In the lawsuit, Mariah Gondeiro, an attorney representing the church, called the board’s questions “inappropriate” and “irrelevant” to its qualifications for renting space at the high school.
“The committee’s questions carry a clear implication: unless the Pines Church aligns with the committee’s stance on these matters, they will not endorse the church’s lease proposal,” the complaint said. “As a result, negotiations between the church and the Hermon School Committee have collapsed.”
The district’s attorney, Melissa Hewey of Portland, did not immediately return a request for comment Thursday but earlier this year, when the initial discrimination claim was filed with the district, she denied the board discriminated against the church.
The school committee’s answer to the complaint is due July 31, according to information posted on the court’s electronic case filing system.