Couple Prohibited From Hosting Bible Study, Worship on Property Without Permit Under Threat of Fines

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SEWICKLEY HEIGHTS, Pa. — A Pennsylvania couple has filed a legal challenge after being prohibited from hosting Bible studies, worship gatherings and other Christian retreats and fundraisers on their property without a permit under the threat of fines of $500 per day.

According to a lawsuit filed by the Independence Law Center, Scott and Theresa Fetterolf have been conducting the events on their Sewickley Heights property since 2003, carrying on a practice held by the previous owner, who for decades permitted the 35-acre farm to be used for Bible studies, seminary board meetings, youth events, fundraisers for churches and other Christian gatherings.

In October, the Fetterolfs received a “Notice of Violation/Cease and Desist Order” from borough officials, asserting that the ongoing numerous activities, being in a “historical-rural residential district,” violated a zoning ordinance that states that a “place of worship or assembly” must apply for a conditional use permit.

A “place of worship or assembly” is defined under Ordinance 294 as a “building, structure, and/or lot where people regularly observe, practice, or participate in religious or spiritual services, meetings, and/or activities or that is designed (or adapted) for the assembly or collection of persons for civic, political, religious, educational, social, recreational, and amusement purposes.”

The Notice of Violation also claimed that the Bible studies can be categorized as a “special or studio school,” and that a fee-based conditional use permit would also be needed for each “class.”

A studio school is defined under Ordinance 294 as a “small scale facility, typically accommodating one group of students at a time, in no more than one instructional space offering specialized instruction, including for purposes of example but not limitation, individual and group instruction in the arts, production rehearsals, musical recitals, martial arts training, and yoga and aerobics instruction.”

The Fetterolfs do not believe that using their farm for Christian gatherings—which, in addition to Bible studies and prayer meetings, include annual picnics for a local seminary, fundraisers for the Billy Graham Library, and occasional youth group events—constitutes the creation of a “place of worship” or a “studio school,” as the property is primarily used as their personal residence and for agriculture.

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According to the lawsuit, the Notice of Violation also cited the “Sewickley Valley Worship Night,” a fall Bible teaching and worship retreat, and a fundraiser for Kenya Christian Education Partnership as requiring permits.

“A church, synagogue, or mosque would be the prototypical ‘place of worship,’ explaining why a ‘place of worship’ is not even listed on the table of what are considered accessory uses within any of the zones within the borough,” the legal complaint argues, “since they would not by nature be anything but a primary use.”

The Fetterolfs ceased hosting Bible studies and worship on their property upon receiving the letter, and lodged an appeal, which has resulted in a number of ongoing hearings before borough officials. Both the Zoning Hearing Board and the Borough have stated that they have no power to lift the cease and desist order.

The couple has consequently taken the matter to the courts to seek legal intervention.

“The Fetterolfs wish to begin religious activities again, including Bible studies, prayer meetings for a small number of guests, a church youth group twice in the summer (40 guests), a youth leader brunch (10-12 guests), a labor day picnic for the seminary (100 guests), and a fundraiser for the Billy Graham Library in September (250 guests),” the legal challenge outlines.

It contends that while religious activities are subject to a conditional use permit, the same rules have not been applied to similar properties that have hosted “bonfires, Child Health Association meetings, Harry Potter parties, Royal wedding parties, Farm to Table events, Heart Association fundraisers, political fundraisers, birthday parties, equestrian club meetings, book club meetings, baby showers, garden club meetings, football game parties, and graduation parties. ”

“There is no compelling interest in prohibiting Bible studies, meetings where religious songs are sung, religious retreats/fellowship, and religious fundraisers, especially when secular counterparts of these activities are permitted,” the lawsuit opines.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Fetterolfs also conduct commercial activities on their farm, including “a yarn and wool shop, sales of cut flowers and fresh honey, a weekly produce stand, educational classes, and other programs.” The information is not cited in the lawsuit and it is not clear whether any of those activities are of issue with the Borough.

Read the legal challenge in full here, and read the ordinance at issue here.

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