ACLU of PA Files Discrimination Lawsuit Over Denial of Zoning Permit for African American Baptist Church

October 28, 2002 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH – Acting on behalf of a local congregation, the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania today filed a federal civil rights lawsuit charging illegal race and religious discrimination in town officials’ refusal to issue a zoning permit to a predominantly African-American church.

Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the ACLU’s Pittsburgh chapter and one of the attorneys for the church, said his group agreed to take on the case because discrimination by local land-use officials against small and unpopular religious groups is a widespread problem.

“Minority churches and religions have historically suffered discrimination by local land-use boards,” he said. “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, passed unanimously by Congress in 2000, was designed to correct this problem and applies squarely to this case.”

The case arose after the Second Baptist Church, which has operated in the town of Homestead for 98 years, outgrew its space and sought to take over Grace Christian Church, located just up the road in neighboring West Mifflin. The church had closed after the Reverend Michael William Altman was imprisoned on fraud charges. The Second Baptist Church bought the property from the court-appointed trustee this past summer.

According to Second Baptist’s Deacon, Russell Freeman, the need for the new space was acute. Members, family and friends had been turned away from funeral and wedding receptions, the Church has been unable to expand its Bible-study program, and it has had to curtail its plans for a teen ministry program. “The bigger and nicer nearby church answered our needs,” Freeman said.

Even though Second Baptist did not plan to change the property’s church use, and West Mifflin had granted Grace Christian an occupancy permit to operate a church in 1998, the Borough demanded that Second Baptist apply for and receive a permit. Then in late August, West Mifflin Zoning Administrator Dennis Butler denied the application without providing a reason as required under state law. West Mifflin officials have advised Second Baptist that they will continue to fight the application.

“The only difference between the Second Baptist Church and the Grace Christian Church that they wish to acquire is that our clients are Baptists and their congregation is predominantly African-American,” said ACLU cooperating attorney Jon Pushinsky. “After the Borough denied the occupancy permit without explanation or good reason to allow one similarly-sized church to take over another, the inference of discrimination based on race or religion stood out.”

The Pittsburgh ACLU has invoked the federal religious protection law once before. In November 2000, the ACLU threatened a lawsuit against Belle Acres Borough when it tried to use local zoning laws to impose various unreasonable operating restrictions on the Zen Center of Pittsburgh, including one that allowed services and meditation only on Sundays. The ACLU ultimately convinced the Borough to lift the restrictions without having to go to court.

The complaint in the case can be found online at: /node/35361

The ACLU memo in support of Second Baptist Church can be found online at: /node/35362

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