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Zoning Ordinance Illegally Bars Church from Establishing House of Worship in East Point, ACLU Says
ATLANTA - The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, charging that the city of East Point, Georgia violated a federal religious discrimination law when it denied the church a zoning permit needed to establish its house of worship.
“We simply want a permanent house of worship, where church members can gather for ministry, education and fellowship,” said Nathaniel Smiley, pastor at the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church. “The East Point property is perfect for our church and we don’t believe that we should be denied the ability to move in because we are a church.”
Pastor Smiley chose the East Point property in April 2005 because of its availability, price and central location in the heart of East Point. The owner agreed to sell Pastor Smiley the property, but the zoning and planning commission intervened and informed the church of a city ordinance prohibiting churches from occupying structures that had previously been used for commercial purposes.
Because the ordinance would allow a secular entity to purchase the building but not a religious group, the ACLU lawsuit charges that the ordinance violates the United States and Georgia Constitutions. The ACLU also said the ordinance violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), a federal statute that protects religious freedom in the land-use and prison contexts.
“Freedom of religion is at the heart of this case,” said John W. Hinchey, partner of King & Spalding, which is cooperating with the ACLU on this case. “In keeping with our long and proud tradition of service to the Atlanta community, King & Spalding is pleased to represent Tabernacle Community Baptist Church, under the sponsorship of the ACLU of Georgia. We are advocating on behalf of all religious faiths, creeds and denominations, because we believe that the legal community has a responsibility to ensure that freedom of worship is protected for all people.”
The Tabernacle Community Baptist Church is currently without a permanent house of worship. For the past two years, the members and Pastor Smiley have met for Sunday worship services at the Wellesley Inn in East Point. When the facilities are available, services are held in the Inn’s conference room, which can hold only 60 people. The church is forced to use the employee break room for its Sunday school classes.
“The East Point zoning ordinance is unconstitutional and unjust,” said Maggie Garrett, staff counsel at the ACLU of Georgia. “The city of East Point should not be discriminating against the Tabernacle Community Baptist Church simply because it is a religious entity.”
The ACLU is asking the court to overturn the ordinance and allow the church to establish a place of worship on the property in dispute.
The lawsuit, Tabernacle Community Baptist Church v. City of East Point, was filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division.
A copy of the complaint is online at: www.acluga.org/press.releases/0604/Complaint20060419.pdf