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Miss. Church Claims City's Refusal to Lease Building Is Restricting Growth

Opulent Life Church in Holly Springs, Miss., has filed an appeal asking a court to grant an injunction against the city for not allowing it to lease a building in the town square, with the pastor claiming he is being discriminated against because the property is being requested for a church.

Opulent Life Church, established in 2011 according to the ministry's website, does not think other businesses with similar circumstances would be denied access to the town square building. "No other entities or institutions are subject to such limitations as are churches" in the town of Holly Springs, Pastor Telsa DeBerry told The Christian Post.

According to a press release, Opulent Life Church needs to expand to the town square because its congregation is growing and simply needs more space. But when the church tried to get approval for a comprehensive building plan, Holly Springs denied its request. Initially, the city did not even offer an explanation. The mayor of Holly Springs went so far as to deny DeBerry a complete copy of the city's zoning ordinance. The city zoning ordinance reportedly requires only churches requesting building space to get permission from the mayor and 60 percent of local property owners.

This past January, DeBerry and Opulent Life Church decided to take the matter to court. The Liberty Institute took up the case, and filed a suit against Holly Springs. The Liberty institute is a nonprofit organization that defends, protects, and litigates on behalf of religious freedoms throughout the U.S.

The Mississippi District Court has so far denied Opulent Life's request for an injunction. According to the press release, the court said Opulent Life Church wants "to use the rented building [within the town square] in anticipation that their membership will grow." The court expressed that anticipation of reaching capacity and being at capacity are two different things, and currently, members of Opulent Life Church are not over capacity and "not currently being deprived of the right to freely exercise their religion." At the time of the filing of its lawsuit, Opulent's congregation numbered less than 20 members. Pastor DeBerry insisted that the church's current location was inadequate and restricting its growth.

"The mission of the church is more than Sunday morning worship service capacity, but ministry to the community capacity. As it stands now much of that ministry has to be done outside when the weather permits. For instance, this past summer we hosted Vacation Bible School in a local park and touched the lives of over 80 young people, this could never be done in the current building," Pastor DeBerry told CP.

DeBerry's reasoning will be the crux of the church's legal defense. Liberty Institute attorney Ashley Johnson of Gibson, Dunn & Crutche, represents the Opulent Life Church.

"The court's conclusion that the church has sufficient space is simply wrong," Johnson told CP. "Pastor DeBerry testified that the church desired to hold specific outreach or community events and was unable to do so because of limited space. In addition, it is well established that a church that is mostly full – as the church unquestionably is – will suffer in attempting to attract new members. It was legal error for the court to ignore Pastor DeBerry's testimony, which was not contested by any evidence from the City."

Holly Springs' representatives have claimed that what is required of Opulent Life Church is required of all businesses desiring a location in the city square. Mayor Andre DeBerry also insisted that the church was not being singled out.

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