A Georgia County has revised a zoning policy that forced a church congregation to temporarily hold its services in the basement of a jewelry store. As part of the settlement, the county has agreed to pay several thousand dollars to the church in damages and attorneys’ fees.
In June 2012, a Christian legal group filed suit against Rockdale County for refusing New Generation Christian Church access to different properties to hold worship services. The zoning code prohibits churches from meeting on property of less than three acres in any zoning district.
“Government officials shouldn’t use zoning restrictions to discriminate against small, start-up churches that want to minister to communities in need,” said Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “There’s no legitimate reason to require churches to have a minimum of three acres of property.”
This zoning restriction did not apply to other groups including sports centers, day care center, libraries or performing arts centers.
Before filing the suit, the church requested permission to rent the vacant property it initially occupied. The county rejected the request because of the zoning restrictions. The congregation began meeting in the basement of a jewelry store.
“Small churches have the same constitutional freedoms as non-religious groups and larger, wealthy churches,” said 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.”
In the complaint, New Generation said the zoning code violated its free exercise of religious guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. It also said the code violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law protects churches and other faith groups from discriminatory zoning laws.
“Federal law prohibits saddling churches with these kinds of unjustifiable, targeted zoning restrictions,” Stanley explained. “We commend the county for changing its regulations so that small ministries can afford properties appropriate for their size.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Read the complaint in New Generation Christian Church v. Rockdale County.