Atlanta church sues suburb for denying request for land-use permit

Thursday, May 3, 2001

An Atlanta church is suing the suburb of Forest Park, alleging officials violated the First Amendment and a federal land-use law by refusing to allow the church to occupy property in a commercial district.

The Refuge Temple Ministries filed a complaint in U.S. District Court on April 12 seeking relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

The act says municipalities may not deny a religious institution’s zoning request unless they show a compelling government interest to justify the denial.

The complaint accuses Forest Park officials of depriving Refuge Temple members of their rights to freedom of religion, speech, assembly, due process and equal protection under the law by denying the church’s petition for a special land-use permit in December.

The church is seeking unspecified damages and a permanent injunction restraining defendants from enforcing the zoning ordinance that requires churches to obtain the special permit.

Named in the lawsuit are the city of Forest Park, City Council members and planning and zoning board members. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and Atlanta attorney Eric Hilton are representing Refuge Temple in the lawsuit.

“I think what we have here is an attitude that is too common among zoning officials in the U.S.,” said Patrick Korten of the Becket Fund. “They’re predisposed to be very restrictive about zoning rules as they apply to churches and other religious organizations, Korten said. “For years they’ve been able to get away with that, even though it’s highly questionable from a constitutional standpoint.”

The Refuge Temple, a 50-member church founded in 1997, is lead by the Rev. Harry Simon, who sought to lease a building at 770 Main Street in Forest Park as a “permanent home to accommodate current membership and to allow for future growth,” according to an April 12 Becket Fund news release.

Presently, the church meets in a storefront in a strip mall in Decatur, Korten said. Prior to that, members met at Simon’s or other church members’ homes.

The church’s “lack of a permanent facility has been a hardship on its religious exercise,” according to the suit. For this reason, Simon applied to the city’s zoning department for permission to occupy the building on Main Street. The request was approved on Aug. 11, 2000.

That same day, Simon signed a lease and prepared to occupy the property. The church spent close to $14,000 on rent deposits, renovations and utilities, the lawsuit states.

On Aug. 29, Steve Pearson, head of the zoning department, told Simon that a special land-use permit was required to use the Main Street property as a church, the suit states. Pearson said he was unaware of the zoning ordinance requiring petitioners to seek the special permit, according to the complaint.

The ordinance requiring “churches and other places of worship” to obtain the special permit was enacted on Aug. 7, according to the lawsuit.

The zoning board approved Simon’s petition for the permit on Dec. 8, but Simon’s request was denied by the City Council at their Dec. 18 meeting.

“Although a group of concerned citizens were present at the meeting to protest the proliferation of liquor stores in the community, no one from the general public or neighborhood surrounding the property opposed the church’s petition,” the lawsuit says.

The City Council gave no explanation for denying the petition, the complaint states.

Forest Park Mayor Charles Hall and City Council members did not return calls for comment. Jack Hancock, the city’s attorney, refused to comment on the case.

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