Indiana man says he doesn’t need permit to worship in his own church building

Tuesday, August 3, 1999

Kevin Wilson has been fighting Evansville, Ind., zoning-usage requirements for almost six years and now may be taking the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1994, Wilson purchased some property with a church on it. He said he wanted to have the building to help churches and small groups get started and to provide a place for people to worship and pray.

A few weeks after he posted a sign in front of the church, Wilson received a letter from the city planning commission stating that he must cease work until all required permits were obtained.

“It seemed odd to me that I would have to get a permit to exercise my First Amendment right to assemble in my own building,” Wilson said.

At first, Wilson refused to get the permit. He said he didn't see why he needed a permit to worship and asked the city to define what it meant by churches.

At his request, Wilson received a letter from the planning commission defining a church as the religious society founded and established by Jesus Christ, to receive, preserve and propagate his doctrines and ordinances.

Wilson said that the city's definition of a church only applied to the Christian faith.

“If this definition is true by law, then it requires only Christian churches to get permits and permission from the government,” Wilson said. “So if I were a Buddhist, a Hindu or a Jew, technically I wouldn't have needed the permit.”

Shawn Sullivan, attorney for the Board of Zoning Appeals in Evansville, says that all the special-use permit does is govern land use.

“The purpose of the special-use permit is not to limit the free exercise of religious beliefs,” Sullivan said.

Wilson did get a conditional permit in 1994 that had to be renewed after one year.

Sullivan said Wilson's permit was subject to a one-year time limit because of neighbors' concerns about parking and the number of people who would be using the building.

When it came time for Wilson to renew his permit, he refused on the grounds that it violated his First Amendment rights to have to get a permit to assemble and worship God on his own property.

Wilson filed suit against the city in May 1997 and Vanderburgh County Judge William J. Brune ruled that a special-use permit constitutes “a substantial burden upon a person's free exercise of the freedom of religion guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution … and made applicable to the states by the 14th Amendment.”

The city and planning commission appealed the judge's ruling to the Indiana Court of Appeals in November 1998 and the court overturned Brune's decision.

Wilson petitioned the Indiana Supreme Court to hear his case, but it refused.

Robert Faulkner, Wilson's attorney, says they have two options. They are considering either petitioning to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear the case or challenging the Indiana Court of Appeals ruling in U.S. District Court.

“The permit requirement puts too much restraint on the free exercise of religion and by putting the government in a position where it decides if a church should receive a permit or not it becomes excessively entangled with religion,” Faulkner said.

They have until Aug. 27 to file their petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, Faulkner said.

Wilson's church, Our Lord's Chapel, holds 60 people, but Wilson says the congregation averages 20-30 people.

“We were not a huge congregation gobbling up property,” Wilson said. “I thought we had protection.”

Wilson says he doesn't want to let the matter go.

“If a government agency can tell people they can't assemble and worship in their home or a private church building, there is a serious First Amendment problem,” Wilson said.