(Photo: The Liberty Institute)
A small congregation in Mississippi not allowed to set up its church in a town square is bringing a suit against the town to federal court.
Opulent Life Church's suit against Holly Springs over its zoning ordinances was brought before a three judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, where justices heard arguments on Wednesday.
Opulent Life is being represented in part by the Texas-based Liberty Institute. Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for Liberty, told The Christian Post that there are two ordinances at issue in the suit.
"One requires churches to get 60 percent approval from all neighbors within a quarter mile of the property in order to exist anywhere in the city limits," said Sasser.
"The other one completely excludes churches from the town square but allows museums, art galleries, and libraries."
Opulent Life Church is a congregation of around 18 members that belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention. Its head pastor is Telsa DeBerry, who is the nephew of Holly Springs' mayor, Andre DeBerry.
In September 2011, town officials rejected a request from Opulent Life to lease a building at the town square, arguing that the space was needed for businesses and shops instead.
In response, Opulent Life filed a suit against Holly Springs in January. The federal judge ruled in favor of the town, leading the church to appeal to the Fifth Circuit panel.
Since the January suit was filed, Opulent Life has garnered the support of the United States Department of Justice, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief against Holly Springs.
"The ordinance imposes special requirements on churches which are unlike any imposed on similar uses – no other use requires approval by neighbors, the Mayor, or the Board of Aldermen," read the amicus brief filed by the DOJ.
"The provisions are particularly troubling because they would allow neighbors or officials to exclude any religious community from virtually any part of the city and for any reason, even if the motive is bias against the group's religious affiliation or racial identity."
Regarding the issue of providing space for businesses and shops, Sasser told CP that the zoning ordinances should not interfere with religious expression and assembly.
"First, the city's inclusion of libraries, museums, and art galleries as nonprofit uses but excluding churches is a violation of the law," said Sasser.
"Second, churches are vital parts of the community that contribute to the spiritual and economic growth of their towns."
Andre Deberry, mayor of Holly Springs, Miss., did not return a request for comment by press time.