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Unconstitutional ordinance stops Ga. church from meeting on leased property

Church attendance drops, ministries cancelled after being forced to relocate to inferior locations

ATLANTA — Alliance Defense Fund attorneys filed a motion for preliminary injunction Thursday on behalf of Christ Liberty Family Life Center to stop the city of Avondale Estates from enforcing a discriminatory zoning ordinance while a lawsuit filed July 23 moves forward. Restrictions in the ordinance, many of which do not apply to non-religious organizations, have forced the small congregation to stop meeting on its leased property and relocate to various inferior locations, resulting in plummeting attendance and causing cancellation of numerous ministries, outreaches, and functions.

“Churches should not be singled out for discrimination by a city’s zoning restrictions,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “Federal law and the Constitution prohibit city officials from targeting Christ Liberty. It is irresponsible for the government to create and enforce ordinances that can have the effect of shutting down religious ministries that serve the community.”

In April, Christ Liberty--founded in December 2009 to minister to youth, the poor, and others in need in the community--was stopped from meeting on its leased property because its total area was less than three acres. The three-acre requirement does not apply to non-religious assemblies. ADF attorneys argue that the zoning ordinance not only violates the U.S. Constitution, but that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act also prohibits zoning officials from singling out churches for discriminatory treatment.

The problematic ordinance also excludes churches in every city district unless they receive the city’s permission through a “conditional use permit.”  Other assemblies, such as museums and libraries, are not similarly burdened.

Since it was stopped from meeting on its leased property, Christ Liberty has been forced to use ill-suited, temporary meeting space at locations that change weekly, causing a 75-percent drop in regular attendance from 60 to 15 members. Because the alternate locations offer less space and are more difficult for attendees to access, the church has had to cancel its children’s ministry, nursery, youth ministry, prayer ministry, tutoring classes, singing and musical performances, outreach functions, and social gatherings. The interference with the church’s mission and the extreme financial hardship imposed by the city’s zoning restrictions threatens the existence of Christ Liberty, which may soon be forced to close its doors.

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit Christ Liberty Family Life Center v. City of Avondale Estates with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division. John W. Mauck and Lee McCoy, two of nearly 1,800 attorneys in the ADF alliance, are also serving as counsel in the suit. Mauck and McCoy are with the Chicago-based law firm Mauck & Baker, LLC. 

  • Pronunciation guide: Theriot (Tare-ee-oh)

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.