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Ga. church no longer meeting underground for now

Court order temporarily paves way for small church

ATLANTA, Ga. — Rockdale County agreed to a federal court injunction issued Friday that allows a church to temporarily reconvene in a building where the county previously denied access because the property was less than three acres in size. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys represent the church in the case, which continues in federal court.

“Government officials should not use zoning restrictions to close down religious services of small, start-up churches, so we commend the county for agreeing to a court order that allows this church to meet while the case moves forward,” said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “It’s unconstitutional and a violation of federal law to target churches with these kinds of zoning restrictions. Small ministries like this one shouldn’t be forced underground simply because they can’t afford a property of more than three acres.”

In June, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed suit against the county for refusing New Generation Christian Church access to several different properties for its worship services. The county’s zoning code restricts churches from meeting on property of less than three acres in any zoning district but does not similarly restrict other groups, including sports centers, day care centers, libraries, performing arts centers, recreational clubs, and educational institutions.

In May, the church requested permission to rent the vacant property they initially occupied, but the county again denied the request for the same reasons, forcing the congregation to meet in the inadequate basement of a jewelry store. As a small, start-up church, New Generation cannot afford to purchase or lease a property of three acres or more.

“Under the city’s rules, only non-religious groups and large, wealthy churches can find an adequate place to meet, and that just doesn’t make sense,” Stanley explained. “This is exactly why federal law protects churches from arbitrary and subjective zoning decisions. We hope the city will change its zoning regulations and eliminate the need to continue this case.”

The lawsuit argues that the zoning code violates the church’s free exercise of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law which protects churches and religious groups from burdensome and discriminatory zoning law restrictions on their property use.

Atlanta attorney Craig Bertschi, one of more than 2,200 allied attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, is serving as local counsel in the lawsuit, New Generation Christian Church v. Rockdale County, pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division.

Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) is an alliance-building legal ministry that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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