Thursday, August 16, 2012
Church awaits appellate court answer
By SUE WATSON
Opulent Life Church appealed a lower court ruling that denied an injunction to declare the Holly Springs zoning ordinance in violation of the RLUIP Act (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) and therefore unenforceable.
The church, led by pastor Telsa DeBerry, is represented by Liberty Institute attorneys and by attorneys from Gibson Dunn Law Firm. Liberty Institute’s attorneys were in New Orleans, La., last week before a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, along with attorney Ki Jones with the City of Holly Springs. Both groups made oral arguments in the appeal for injunctive relief by the plaintiffs.
Jones said the board of aldermen had not refused to allow Opulent Life Church to operate in the city – that the church has been holding services in a building also occupied by Marshall County Baptist Association off J.M. Ash Drive. The board of aldermen had not acted on the request of Opulent Life Church to open a storefront church in the middle of the block between the Bank of Holly Springs and the tobacco and liquor stores on Memphis Street downtown, he said. Rather, the board had tabled the request while it waited on Opulent Life Church to submit a specific site plan for their new facility. At the same time, the city was in the process of revising its Comprehensive Plan, which includes the city’s zoning ordinance.
City leaders last week adopted a new 20-year master plan, which contains an ordinance that it says will, in effect, sidestep the charges in the lawsuit.
“Case law interpreted the RLUIP Act as saying you can’t place more strenuous requirements on religious organizations than any other business,” Jones said.
He said Liberty Institute, which took up the case of Opulent Life Church on appeal after a lower court ruled in favor of the city, wants to preserve and protect religious freedom.
Jones said he does not know how Liberty Institute finds its clients, which are churches in the main.
The city ordinance, in effect at the time the lawsuit was filed, did permit churches in certain areas, upon appeal to the board of aldermen, if the churches met certain requirements, Jones said.
“The new 2012 Comprehensive Plan would cure the flaws in the ordinance language as it pertains to churches,” Jones said.
He said churches would be allowed in some zones and prohibited in others.
Another church, the Church of Salt and Light, complied with city zoning ordinances and built on Neely Drive off Old Highway 178 East, as did Davis Temple Church on West Street. Jones said those two permits for new church buildings illustrate that the city does not oppose churches, but rather is applying planning and zoning in the right way.
He added that the case of Opulent Life is not scheduled to be heard on its merits until April 2013.
Meanwhile, Opulent Life Church is holding its services on Sunday at the Marshall County Baptist Association office building on Highway 7 South. Opulent Life Church did not go before zoning for approval to hold services at its current location, Jones said.
He said Holly Springs is trying to develop retail and commercial business downtown where many buildings are vacant, as the business district has spread away from downtown to the areas near Highway 78 south of town.
The city is trying to revive downtown both through ordinances and by trying to attract visitors to the area. The city is encouraging entrepreneurial activities and hopes to restore the downtown area as a center of commerce through participation in the Mississippi Main Street program.
Jones said the RLUIP Act used as an argument by Opulent Life Church and Liberty Institute was never interpreted to mean “a church can pick its spot.”
Pastor Telsa DeBerry said he filed the lawsuit after making a number of attempts to communicate with the mayor and board of aldermen, including letters sent by certified mail. He said the city did concede that it was in violation of the Constitution (RLUIP Act) under the old ordinance. He said the church filed the lawsuit in February 2011.
“We had to go to court to get relief,” he said.
For the present time, Opulent Life Church intends to continue to hold services in the Baptist Association building and attempt to grow.
“We are here for the sake of the community at large,” DeBerry said.
“That’s part of the reason we are compelled to file the lawsuit.”
He alleged the city was doing things not productive for the community.
News: (662) 252-4261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Fax: (662) 252-3388
Questions, comments, corrections: email@example.com
The South Reporter
P.O. Box 278
Holly Springs, MS 38635
©2004, The South Reporter, All Rights Reserved.
No part of this site may be reproduced in any way without permission.
The South Reporter is a member of the Mississippi Press Association.
Site managed and maintained by
South Reporter webmasters Linda Jones, Kristian Jones
Web Site Design - The South Reporter
Back | Top of Page