Sean Feucht files lawsuit against Spokane, claims city violated establishment clause

(RNS) — Worship leader and conservative activist Sean Feucht has filed a lawsuit against the city of Spokane, Washington, claiming the city council violated his religious freedom when it passed a resolution last year condemning an event he headlined and referring to him as an “anti-LGBTQ extremist.”

The lawsuit, which was filed on Wednesday (June 5) in Spokane County Superior Court, claims four current and former members of the Spokane City Council violated the Washington State Constitution and U.S. Constitution, including the establishment clause that bars the government from establishing a single religion.

The city’s resolution “was enacted in violation of FEUCHT’s Free Exercise of Religion as established by the First Amendment,” the lawsuit claims, later calling the city’s motion “a direct action that condemned and punished the public worship of FEUCHT.”

City officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Friday, but Feucht framed the lawsuit in combative terms.

“Liberals have gotten away with using the power of government to bully Christians for too long, and we’re not putting up with it anymore,” Feucht said in a statement sent to Religion News Service. “We’re Americans. This is still a free country. We have the right to gather and worship and pray without being attacked and maligned by our own government, so we are going to fight back.”

The lawsuit is the latest chapter in a controversy over an incident that occurred last August, when then-Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward drew backlash for attending an event in the city organized by Feucht. The event was part of Feucht’s “Let Us Worship” tour, which kicked off during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and drew criticism for hosting in-person concerts across the country — often in defiance of local pandemic restrictions. 

The events were marked by controversy: At one gathering in Portland, Oregon, Feucht’s security included at least one member of the extremist group Proud Boys and a person charged in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“If you mess with them or our 1st amendment right to worship God – you’ll meet Jesus one way or another,” Feucht once tweeted alongside a picture of his security team.

Feucht has also been an outspoken critic of LGBTQ+ rights campaigns, using the term “groomers” to refer to their supporters and once tweeting “The LGBTQ+ mafia is a cult bent on perverting and destroying the innocence of every child they can.”

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, center, is prayed over by pastor Matt Shea, second left, during a Sean Feucht, left, “Let Us Worship” event in Spokane, Washington, Sunday, Aug. 20, 2023. (Video screen grab via Twitter/@josephdpeterson)

Last year’s worship event in Spokane also featured local pastor Matt Shea, the head of On Fire Ministries who has appeared at multiple events associated with Christian nationalism and a regional Christian separatist movement known as the American Redoubt. Known for his far-right rhetoric, Shea was once a Republican state lawmaker but was kicked out of the state GOP caucus after an independent investigation found him guilty of domestic terrorism due to his involvement with the armed takeover of Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge in 2016. It was later revealed Shea had distributed a document, titled “Biblical Basis for War,” which, among other things, condemned same-sex marriage and suggested murdering all non-Christian males “if they do not yield” in a hypothetical war.

Shea also attended a protest in 2022 of an LGBTQ+ pride event in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, which sits just across the state border from Spokane. Two people connected to his church were among the 31 members of the white supremacist group Patriot Front who were arrested in the back of a U-Haul at the event, with police claiming the men were planning to riot.

Shea prayed over Woodward during the August event in Spokane, standing behind the mayor, her family and Feucht as he asked God to urge Woodward and other political leaders to “stand on the foundation, the rock of Jesus Christ.”

The appearance sparked immediate backlash from critics, both for its content and for Woodward’s decision to attend the service even as wildfires engulfing nearby forests blackened the sky. Woodward eventually issued a statement distancing herself from Shea, saying the pastor “politicize(d) a gathering of thousands of citizens who joined together yesterday to pray for fire victims and first responders.” She lost her reelection bid in November.

City council members listed Shea’s past controversies in their resolution last September, condemning Woodward’s appearance at the event. The resolution also referred to Feucht as an “anti-LGBTQ extremist,” and noted city council members had received a letter signed by local faith leaders condemning Christian nationalism and calling on elected officials to “hold fast to the separation of church and state.”

“Feucht was well advertised as being featured at this event and is known for his bigotry toward LGBTQ+ people and his embrace of the label of ‘Christian nationalist,’” read a copy of the faith leaders’ statement obtained by RNS. The letter, which was signed by Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders, also referred to Shea as ascribing to “violent Christian dominionist and white supremacist ideology.”

Feucht’s lawsuit, which was organized in part by a conservative legal outfit known as the Silent Majority Foundation, references the letter, arguing that mention of it alongside other language in the city council’s resolution effectively “declared the religious views of certain people to be acceptable or unacceptable.” Elsewhere, it argues the city council targeted Feucht in part because he “does not support the LGBTQ agenda.”

The lawsuit concludes: “This Resolution constitutes speech, and it violated the restrictions of the establishment clause.”

Pastor Matt Shea records a video in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, shortly after members of a white nationalist group were arrested. Video screen grab

Pastor Matt Shea records a video in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, shortly after members of a white nationalist group were arrested. (Video screen grab)

Feucht initially appeared to distance himself from Shea’s views when controversy erupted last year. In a statement sent to RNS at the time, Feucht said he prays with a broad swath of people during their services, and while “not all of them agree with each other on every issue … we all agree that there is only ONE WAY under heaven to be saved, and that’s by the blood of Jesus Christ.”

But Feucht has continued to associate with Shea since. According to the Inlander, his legal representation in the new lawsuit include’s Shea’s former law partner, and Feucht first announced his intent to sue the city last Saturday during an appearance at Shea’s church.

“We are taking a stand against the bigotry and hatred against Christians in the city of Spokane,” Feucht told church members this past weekend while holding a copy of the lawsuit aloft. The congregation responded with applause.

During that same appearance, Feucht derided LGBTQ+ Pride Month, saying that “God is rebranding June to be Family Month in America,” before adding, “it’s takeover season.”

Expressing concerns about the establishment clause is something of a turn for Feucht, who declared before an Oklahoma church last April that he prefers laws written by believers. He was even more explicit later that year, saying in an interview, “I want a country where Christians are making the laws.”

Feucht did not respond to questions regarding how he reconciles his new lawsuit with his past rhetoric.

The new lawsuit, which also claims Feucht’s free speech rights were violated, goes on to insist Feucht was “damaged in emotional distress and other non-economic damages” by the city’s resolution and demands he be compensated. According to the InLander, Fuecht initially filed a damages claim in January, arguing city council members who backed the resolution “acted under the color of law to reprieve Feucht of his federally guaranteed First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights, privileges and immunities.”

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