Persecuting a Church Because...It's a Church
Posted May 11th, 2012
Opulent Life Church; Telsa DeBerry v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi
With a growing congregation, Opulent Life Church sought to rent larger space in the downtown area of Holly Springs, Miss. The city told the church that in order to occupy its new space, it must first get the approval of 60 percent of local property owners and then the town’s mayor. The city’s ordinance applied only to churches. Businesses and non-religious groups were not subject to this requirement.
When the city stalled the church’s move because it did not meet the arbitrary and discriminatory requirements, Liberty Institute stepped in to help. Right away, it was clear that the “zoning requirements” were a clear violation of the First Amendment and federal law’s Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Churches should be able to grow and expand free from discrimination, and to place special burdens on them simply because they are a church is unfair, discriminatory, illegal and unconstitutional.
- Opulent Life Church sought to rent larger space in the downtown area of Holly Springs, Miss. The city told the church that due to a zoning restriction, it must get the approval of 60 percent of local property owners and the town’s mayor before expansion would be permitted. No other type of organization or business in Holly Springs is subject to this requirement.
- In January 2012, Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of Opulent Life Church and its pastor, Telsa DeBerry, and sought a preliminary injunction, which the district court denied.
- In March 2012, Liberty Institute filed an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. The appeal argued that Holly Springs’ ordinance unfairly singles out churches, and asked the court to reverse the lower court's decision and grant the church a preliminary injunction to allow it to lease a building on the town square.
- The night before the appellate argument on August 8, 2012, the city of Holly Springs surprisingly announced it had amended its discriminatory ordinance, conceding that the original ordinance violated federal law. However, the new ordinance was just as discriminatory and still prohibited the church from occupying space on the town square.
- On Sept. 28, 2012, the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of Opulent Life Church, reversing the lower court’s ruling and declaring that the city’s ordinance violated federal law.
- In addition, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the new ordinance was equally troubling. The appeals court wrote in its opinion that the city’s “stated purpose…could be read to suggest that the ‘heart of community life’ in Holly Springs is consistent with a variety of nonreligious civic uses, but not religious uses” and that such a purpose is “inherently discriminatory.” The Fifth Circuit returned the case to federal court for a decision on the new ordinance.
- On Oct. 18, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mills granted a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, which prohibits the city of Holly Springs from enforcing its revised zoning ordinance that bans churches from operating in the city’s central square. This ruling finally enables Opulent Life Church to proceed with plans to move into their new facility.
- In preparation for the April 8th trial, Liberty Institute was able to reach a settlement with city attorneys, allowing Opulent Life to permanently relocate to the downtown area of Holly Springs.
We see cases like this too often, as the attacks on religious liberties are now more aggressive than ever. It seems that more and more cities are using “zoning regulations” to prohibit churches from growing and prospering. We need the help of concerned Americans like you so we can continue to defend churches like Opulent Life that have had their religious rights taken away. Please share this information with your friends and family, pray with us, and donate now!