South Carolina county backs off decision barring home prayer meetings

Friday, March 20, 1998

GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP) — An Upstate pastor threatened with a $1,000-a-day fine for holding Bible studies at his house can pray with his friends again in peace after county officials backed off a zoning board’s decision on land-use restrictions.

County Administrator Gerald Seals said Wednesday he will not enforce last week’s decision and will reimburse Orie Wenger’s expenses. He wants board members to reverse the ruling at an April 8 meeting, saying his code-enforcement staff gave them bad advice.

But Wenger’s lawyer said he is still concerned because the zoning board barred the pastor from using his Simpsonville-area home for church-related activities with no thought of whether the county was violating constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion.

“It doesn’t give me a warm, fuzzy feeling when a group of people unanimously voted to tell my client that he couldn’t exercise his constitutional rights in his own home,” attorney David Holmes said. “Why should we expect them to change now?”

On Wednesday, Republican Gov. David Beasley released a letter he wrote to Seals complaining about the zoning board’s order.

“As governor, I cannot stand silent while someone’s basic fundamental rights are trampled upon,” Beasley wrote. “It outrages me that anyone needs to be reminded that zoning regulations can never wipe out constitutional rights.”

“We were on it before Governor Beasley issued his statement,” Seals said. “What happened here is an error was made, and it is now being corrected. It will not occur again. This was a prayer meeting, not a church, and therefore not a zoning issue.”

Wenger, 44, is associate pastor at the nondenominational Mount Zion Christian Fellowship. He has been host to about a dozen people in the weekly prayer group since August, but neighbors complained about the traffic to the Ricelan Creek homeowners’ association and then to the zoning board.

The board told Wenger in January he had to stop holding the meetings in his home, which is zoned as a single-family dwelling, not a church.

The decision was inappropriately based on a literal interpretation of the code and wrongly made it appear that the county was against prayer, Seals said. He said as county administrator, he can order the board to rehear the appeal. Seals also ordered parking limited to one side of the street to address the neighbors’ concerns.

Seals said he will reimburse Wenger’s $66 appeal application fee and review his legal costs; Wenger said he is not sure how much he has spent.

Beasley praised Seals for trying to resolve the matter and urged him to use common sense.

“We have Bible study gathering in the Governor’s Mansion. We also have them in my office,” the governor said. “Apparently, I might need permission from a zoning board to study God’s Word with some of my friends at the mansion.”