(Photo: Reuters/Robert Girous-Files HB)
The U.S. Department of Justice has opted to investigate a Maine city's zoning law regarding restrictions for churches wanting space at shopping malls.
The DOJ sent a letter informing officials of Brewer about the investigation, which would also review the city's denial of an application for expansion for The Rock Church.
Steven Rosenbaum, chief of housing and civil enforcement for the Justice Department, sent a letter to officials in Brewer regarding their church land use ordinance.
"Our investigation will focus on how the city's zoning law treats religious land uses and the justification therefore," wrote Rosenbaum. "We also are reviewing, as part of our investigation, the city's denial of the Rock Church's application for permission to expand."
Kirk Winters, pastor at The Rock Church, told The Christian Post that he was surprised that the Justice Department was reviewing his church's previous attempt to expand.
"I am both surprised and pleased that the DOJ is investigating Brewer's zoning law. Surprised that this case would warrant federal attention, and pleased that Brewer will now have to comply with federal law," said Winters.
Back in January, The Rock Church was meeting at the North Brewer Shopping Plaza. Its growth prompted an expansion, for which the church submitted an application to the city. However, officials rejected the expansion because as they would discover churches are not allowed to be in the Shopping Plaza due to Brewer's zoning law.
According to Article 5 Non-Conformance Section 502.2.1 regarding "Continuation of Use," while the church could remain at the Shopping Plaza it was not allowed to expand.
"A non-conforming use or facility may be continued, but may not be extended or changed unless to a conforming use, except as permitted in accordance with the provisions of this Land Use Code," reads the Article sent to Winters in a letter from Benjamin Breadmore, Code Enforcement Officer representing the city.
"The use of a church in the convenience business zone is a legal non-conforming use and therefore cannot be expanded," wrote Breadmore.
The Rock Church ended up moving to Bangor for more space and is, according to Winters, presently expanding its building there for its congregation, which holds four weekend worship services.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Breadmore explained that the current status of the DOJ investigation involves his office gathering the paperwork on the zoning law's past use.
"The current status of the investigation is that my office is compiling records for all of our assembly occupancies throughout the city for the past 10 years," said Breadmore. "We are also compiling any and all citations, notice of violations, or orders to cease a certain use of a structure that have been issued since 2002 concerning all religious and nonreligious assembly occupancies."
When asked by CP if a possible overturning of the zoning law would prompt The Rock Church to return to North Brewer Shopping Plaza, Winters said it was unlikely given their expansion efforts in Bangor.