The ordinance requires all churches to possess at least three acres of property, stating, “A place of worship shall be located on a minimum of three acres dedicated solely for the place of worship or on its own recorded lot of at least three acres in size . . . .”
Since New Generation Christian Church cannot afford expansive land, they are virtually prohibited from meeting. The county also requires the church to obtain a special use permit, and it may not select property within any industrial zones.
Last year, New Generation Christian Church requested a meter to heat a building that they wanted to meet in, but the county refused, citing that the location was too small. They requested permission for another plot this year, but were again turned down because it was located in an industrial zone. The county refused New Generation Christian Church a third time after they desired to rent a building on property that was deemed to violate the ordinance because it was less than three acres in size.
Last Thursday, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed a lawsuit against Rockdale County officials, stating that the zoning ordinance violates the Constitution, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute that serves to protect churches from over-restrictive zoning regulations.
“Government officials should not use zoning restrictions to close down religious services of small, start-up churches,” stated ADF Senior Legal Counsel Erik Stanley. “Not only is it irresponsible to target small ministries dedicated to serving the community, it’s unconstitutional and violates federal law.”
ADF says that the regulation only applies to churches and not any other establishment, organization or business.
“Under the city’s requirements, only non-religious groups and large, wealthy churches can find an adequate place to meet,” Stanley explained. “This is exactly why federal law protects churches from arbitrary and subjective zoning decisions.”
The church is asking for a preliminary injunction, which would place a freeze upon the ordinance while the case is being decided in court.
For now, New Generation Christian Church is meeting in the basement of a jewelry store, which still does not satisfy the mandates of the law.