Miss. Church Awaits Court Ruling to Move Into Plaza Space

A church in Mississippi that recently won a case regarding a zoning ordinance that had stopped it from using a building at a town square is awaiting a court allowing it to move in.

Opulent Life Church, which won a case against Holly Springs before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals last week, still requires an additional court order to move into a building at the town square.

The small congregation was represented in part by the Texas-based legal group the Liberty Institute when its case was brought before the Seventh Circuit in August.

Hiram Sasser, director of litigation for the Liberty Institute, told The Christian Post that the order is needed because of a last-minute change by Holly Springs to its zoning ordinance.

"We have to get a ruling from the District Court there in Mississippi before our client will be able to move into the property," said Sasser. "But they are hoping to be able to get that decision rather quickly given that the Fifth Circuit did most of the analysis on the ordinance."

In September of last year, 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.

Opulent Life filed suit against Holly Springs in January. The federal judge overseeing the case ruled in favor of the town, which led the church to appeal to the Fifth Circuit panel.

After the January suit was filed, Opulent Life garnered the support of the United States Department of Justice, which filed an amicus 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."

Last week, the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Opulent Life, arguing that the ordinance of Holly Springs regarding its town square was in violation of federal law.

Regarding the Fifth Circuit's conclusions, Sasser of LI told CP that he felt "it's a great decision" regarding the court's interpretation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

"I think that the court really did a good job in interpreting the RLUIPA and more importantly insuring that religious freedom is going to be taken seriously," said Sasser. "I can't imagine that Holly Springs would appeal ... this was a relatively easy call."

Opulent Life Church has an average weekly attendance of about 18 and belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention. Its head pastor, Telsa DeBerry, is the nephew of Holly Springs' mayor, Andre DeBerry.

Mayor Andre DeBerry did not return comment by press time.