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FFRF lauds appeals court ruling denying Edgewood’s sporty religious claim

The Freedom From Religion Foundation celebrates the ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago dismissing Edgewood High School’s lawsuit against the city of Madison for refusing to allow the installation of lights at the school’s football and soccer field. A three-judge panel ruled on March 15 that a lower court correctly dismissed the lawsuit, which was brought on religious freedom grounds.

Edgewood High School, in Madison, Wis., filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Madison in 2021, alleging that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment by denying the school a permit to construct field lights for an athletic field. Reason prevailed when the 7th Circuit ruling rejected the religious claims.

Edgewood was denied a lighting permit in 2019 after the city deemed that it did not conform with municipal zoning requirements. The school attempted to portray this denial as the city imposing a “substantial burden” on the Catholic mission of the school.

The court pointed out that there are alternative sites available for nighttime games, meaning that the city’s zoning decisions did not impose a burden on Edgewood’s religious mission. The high school had never hosted nighttime competitions on the athletic field but carried out its mission all the same for over 100 years, clearly invalidating the school’s claim.

The court also rightly questioned whether field lighting would relate to “religious exercise” at all, although it said it didn’t need to decide the issue to resolve the case.

The ruling comes after a multiyear battle over the lighting permit between Edgewood, which sought to sidestep existing zoning requirements, and the city. The school’s master plan outright states that the field is to be used for daytime practices and competitions. Many neighbors strenuously objected to the proposal to hold evening games in the residential neighborhood, expressing concern over intrusive lights, noise and traffic.

“This case shows the lengths that religious institutions will go to claim that anything they do is related to religious activity and deserves privileging. It is absurd for the school to claim that nighttime sports is religious in nature,” FFRF Co-President Dan Barker says. “We are pleased that the courts properly rejected Edgewood’s claims that religion was affected due to the denial of an athletic field lighting permit.”

The Madison, Wis.-headquartered Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with 40,000 members across the country, including over 1,700 members in Wisconsin. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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