Following ACLU Lawsuit, Town Officials Settle Lawsuit Over Denial of Zoning Permit to Pittsburgh Area Church

April 19, 2004 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH – The American Civil Liberties Union of Greater Pittsburgh today announced the settlement of a federal civil rights lawsuit charging illegal race and religious discrimination in a local town’s refusal to issue a zoning permit to a predominantly African-American church.

The ACLU had filed the lawsuit in 2002 after the Borough of West Mifflin, located about 9 miles southeast of Pittsburgh, refused to issue an occupancy permit for an abandoned church building that the Second Baptist Church of Homestead had been trying to buy.

“We are pleased that the case has worked out to the parties’ satisfaction,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Jon Pushinsky. “The interests of religious freedom have been advanced and there is now nothing to prevent the church and local officials from cooperating with each other for the betterment of the entire West Mifflin community.”

Reverend Donald Turner of the Second Baptist Church added: “The church is very pleased that the whole matter has settled and that we can now focus on spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The case arose after the Second Baptist Church, which has operated in the town of Homestead for 98 years, outgrew its space and sought to take over Grace Christian Church, located just up the road in neighboring West Mifflin. Members, family and friends had been turned away from funeral and wedding receptions because there was not enough room. The Church had been unable to expand its Bible study program and had to curtail its plans for a teen ministry program.

Grace Christian Church had closed after the Reverend Michael William Altman was imprisoned on fraud charges and the Second Baptist Church bought the property from the court-appointed trustee. Even though West Mifflin officials had granted Grace Christian Church an occupancy permit to operate a church in 1998, the Borough demanded that Second Baptist apply for and receive a permit. The Borough then denied the permit application without saying why, despite a state law requiring an explanation for such denials.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church in October 2002, claiming that the Borough’s refusal to issue a zoning permit allowing the predominantly African-American church to use an existing, but unused church was illegal discrimination.

In the midst of a series of preliminary injunction hearings in federal court, the Borough issued, without explanation, the occupancy permit sought by the church. Second Baptist continued the lawsuit to recoup financial losses it suffered as a result of the permit denial. With this settlement, the case is now concluded.

Witold Walczak, the Pittsburgh ACLU’s legal director who served as one of the Church’s lawyers, praised the settlement: “The good people of Second Baptist Church have their new building and they have been made whole through this settlement. The ACLU thanks West Mifflin Borough for helping to resolve this dispute amicably.”

The case is Second Baptist Church of Homestead v. Borough of West Mifflin, CA-02-1834 (W.D.Pa., Cercone, J.). Earlier press releases and court papers in the case can be found online at /node/11072

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