Rockdale County in Georgia is being sued for zoning restrictions that are discriminatory against small churches unable to afford the three-acre property size requirement to function, say attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund.
Lawyers for the Christian-based ADF, who filed the lawsuit on Thursday, said Rockdale County is refusing New Generation Christian Church access to several different properties for its worship services because the properties are less than three acres. The restriction does not apply to nonreligious groups.
"Government officials should not use zoning restrictions to close down religious services of small, start-up churches," said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. "Not only is it irresponsible to target small ministries dedicated to serving the community, it's unconstitutional and violates federal law."
Rockdale County's zoning code restricts churches from meeting on property of less than three acres in any zoning district but does not similarly restrict other groups, ADF stated. The county's code also requires churches to obtain special use permits and prohibits them from locating in limited industrial districts. These restrictions do not apply to nonreligious groups, including sports centers, day care centers, libraries, performing arts centers, recreational clubs, and educational institutions, according to ADF.
New Generation Christian Church has been struggling with county officials over zoning restrictions for quite some time.
In February of last year, the county denied the church a meter to heat a building it rented, citing the zoning code's three-acre limit on churches. The following month, the church applied for another meter for a different building, but the county refused the request on similar grounds.
Last month, the church requested permission to rent the vacant property they initially occupied, but the county again denied the request for the same reasons, forcing the congregation to meet in the inadequate basement of a jewelry store.
"As a small, start-up church, New Generation cannot afford to purchase or lease a property of three acres or more," ADF lawyers said.
"Under the city's requirements, only nonreligious groups and large, wealthy churches can find an adequate place to meet," Stanley explained. "This is exactly why federal law protects churches from arbitrary and subjective zoning decisions."
The lawsuit argues that the zoning code violates the church's free exercise of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law which protects churches and religious groups from burdensome and discriminatory zoning law restrictions on their property use. Along with the lawsuit, ADF attorneys filed a motion that asks the court to suspend the county's restrictions while the case proceeds in court.
Wyoming pastor Duke Tabor, who often writes about issues of religious freedom, believes Rockdale is using its zoning laws in a way that violates the U.S. Constitution.
"Government may not make a law prohibiting the establishment of religion. The county of Rockdale Georgia has done just that," Tabor writes. "By requiring churches to own or rent at least 3 acres of land, they have made a law prohibiting the establishment of religion."
He continues, "So once again we have another case of people who are singling out religion and trying to use city and county zoning laws to prevent churches meeting or bible studies to gather."
Tabor would like Christians to not be apathetic to not only the New Generation Christian Church v. Rockdale County case, but the seemingly increasing number of cases in which the government is restricting religion in the public square.
"This tactic is not happening in Communist China or the former USSR, but it is happening right here in America," he writes. "Are you going to put a stop to it? Are you going to stand with these believers and demand Government get out of the religion regulating business? Are you going to check your own town or city and demand changes to their zoning laws? Or are you going to turn a blind eye since it doesn't directly affect you? Who will speak up for you when the government infringes on your religious liberties?"