Zoning dispute between church, township to be heard in federal court

Tim Barnum
Alger Bible Baptist Church claims its current location, shown above, will not allow for the expansions the church would like to make.

ALGER — Motions filed in federal court regarding a zoning dispute between Alger Bible Baptist Church and Moffatt Township will be heard by a Federal District Judge Dec. 19.

Alger Bible Baptist filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan Northern Division in August, claiming that Moffatt Township’s zoning ordinance is in violation of a federal law titled the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Attorney Daniel P. White, who is representing Moffatt Township in the court proceedings, said the district where the church would like to relocate is in a zone that does not permit churches.

“The church has its eyes on a piece of property in a zoning district called Highway Commercial,” he said. “It’s near the 75 loop there. In that particular zoning district, churches are not permitted.”

White said one of the motions that will be taken up in court Dec. 19 was filed on behalf of the church, and requested that the court grant the church relief to purchase the property. He said he does not feel the church’s motion would be granted.

“I would hope and expect that the church’s preliminary motion would be denied,” he said.

Attorney Dan Dalton, who is representing the church, said Alger Bible Baptist attempted to get the property rezoned as a forested district to meet the Highway Commercial district requirements.

However, according to the church’s complaint, the township’s planning commission recommended that the township board deny the request for rezoning. The complaint said July 15, the township board denied the rezoning permit.

Dalton said he sent a letter to the township stating it was violating First Amendment rights and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“You cannot, as a municipality, allow a secular assembly and deny a religious assembly in the same district, and that is exactly what’s happening in Moffatt Township,” he said.

Dalton said RLUIPA was passed to level the playing field between secular and religious gatherings.

“If you’re going to allow an assembly, you have to allow both secular and religious assemblies,” he said.

According to a copy of the complaint filed in August, since July 2012, the church has been attempting to purchase a parcel at 2030 M-76 in Alger with the intent to relocate the church there. The complaint — a declaration by Alger Bible Baptist Pastor Tony Garrisi — said the church’s current location is in a rental property located at 1464 Joy Street in Alger.

Because it is a rental, Garrisi said in the complaint that getting maintenance and repairs done at the building is difficult.

“The church does not own the building where it is currently housed, meaning the church is not permitted to make badly needed repairs,” the complaint said. “For example, the roof of the building is in such disrepair that the church must use buckets spread throughout the building to catch rainwater that falls through the dilapidated roof.”

Garrisi’s declaration said the congregation included about 30 members each week. Attracting new parishioners is difficult due to the current location, he said in the complaint.

“The church has a shortage of space within which to hold its services, making it nearly impossible for the congregation to welcome new members to join the church and worship together,” he said.

The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan Northern Division holds court proceedings in Bay City.


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