ATLANTA – Rockdale County has revised its zoning regulations in the wake of a federal lawsuit Alliance Defending Freedom filed on behalf of a church denied access to property less than three acres. The city’s zonings restrictions forced the church to convene in the basement of a jewelry store, where it was allowed to temporarily remain while the lawsuit continued. As part of a settlement that ends the suit, the county paid $15,000 in damages to the church and $15,000 in attorneys’ fees.
“Government officials shouldn’t use zoning restrictions to discriminate against small, start-up churches that want to minister to communities in need,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “There’s no legitimate reason to require churches to have a minimum of three acres of property. Federal law prohibits saddling churches with these kinds of unjustifiable, targeted zoning restrictions. We commend the city for changing its regulations so that small ministries can afford properties appropriate for their size.”
In June 2012, ADF 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 2012, 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.
“Small churches have the same constitutional freedoms as non-religious groups and larger, wealthy churches,” added ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “Zoning regulations shouldn’t force small churches to go underground simply because they can’t afford property of more than three acres.”
The lawsuit, New Generation Christian Church v. Rockdale County, argued that the zoning code violated 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 2,400 attorneys allied with Alliance Defending Freedom, served as local counsel in the lawsuit.
- Pronunciation guide: Theriot (TAIR’-ee-oh)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
# # # | Ref. 36704