Florida minister claims city zoning ordinance discriminates against churches

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Of the102 different kinds of institutions allowed to set up shop in a Florida town's commercial district, religious institutions are the only ones restricted to a two-year maximum stay.

Apostolic Worship Center and its pastor, the Rev. Kenneth Greathouse, have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Homestead, claiming that the restrictions placed on religious institutions amount to discrimination and violate the church's First Amendment right to religious freedom and its 14th Amendment equal-protection rights.

The ordinance, enacted May 18, requires religious institutions to submit to the city site plans outlining their proposed use of property; to leave their location after two years; to obtain a certificate of use from the city; to accept limits on the size of their congregation as decided by city building officials; to comply with parking provisions; to locate no less than one-half mile from another religious institution; to waive separation requirements for establishments selling or dispensing alcoholic beverages; to agree not to relocate to another facility in the same zoning district; and to sign a city-approved covenant agreeing to comply with regulations dictating land use.

“The ordinance targets religious institutions and does not require secular institutions to abide by the same regulations,” said Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of the Liberty Counsel.

The Liberty Counsel is a civil liberties education and legal-defense organization representing Greathouse and the Apostolic Worship Center.

Staver said the ordinance violates the First Amendment's establishment clause and also violates the First Amendment rights to free speech, peaceable assembly and free exercise of religion.

In the suit filed on July 16, Staver sites the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998 as support for Greathouse's claims.

Staver said that the city has discriminated against churches by placing specific restrictions on their use while allowing movie theaters, banks, barber shops, day-care centers and many others to operate without the same restrictions.

Edward Guedes, attorney for the city, said that the city's intention in adopting the ordinance was not anti-religious in any way.

“The city originally wanted to exclude religious institutions from the B-1 [commercial] zoning district altogether,” Guedes said.

Guedes said that the city was trying to encourage places of worship to locate in residential neighborhoods, and that the time restriction placed on religious institutions was the city's compromise in lieu of the original ban on churches in the commercial district altogether.

The same restrictions placed on religious institutions apply to all other institutions in the commercial district except the two-year time limit and the rule against relocating to another location in the commercial district, Guedes says. The reason the ordinance does not list all the stipulations for all uses is because other institutions mentioned in the measure had already been in the commercial district and were abiding by the rules, he said.

Guedes said permitting churches to relocate to another commercial zoning site after the two-year time limit would defeat the effort to persuade churches to settle in residential districts.

In January 1998, Greathouse took over a special-use permit allowing the church to rent a strip mall storefront for six months. Greathouse said that when the permit expired the city would not renew it because the new ordinance was already being considered.

City Councilman Nick Sincore said that he opposed the ordinance because he didn't believe that the city should be able to place such restrictions on churches.

“The council doesn't want storefront churches at all,” Sincore said. “The ordinance allows more consideration for liquor stores than it does for churches.”

Sincore was the only council member to vote against the measure.

Although she was unwilling to discuss the ordinance in detail, Councilwoman Eliza Perry said that the case was strictly a zoning issue. Perry voted in favor of the ordinance.