Updated 7:10 p.m. with additional comments from Pastor Michael Hirsch.
Calvary Christian Church's attempt to get the General Assembly to back its effort to start a day school serving children with developmental or emotional disabilities failed unanimously in committee today.
House Bill 1196 sponsored by Del. Mark Cole would have allowed churches to have private schools and daycare centers under any zoning classification. Cole said Calvary Christian Church Pastor Michael Hirsch approached him to sponsor this bill after Fredericksburg City Council denied his special use permit to open the school at the church off U.S. 1 in Fredericksburg.
After council denied the application for the second time last August in a sometimes testy and controversial debate, Calvary Christian filed a federal lawsuit charging the city violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the right of religious liberty. City officials disagreed and the City Attorney’s Office released a statement last year that stated the council reviewed the application with fairness.
In November 2011, U.S. District Judge John Gibney dismissed the church’s lawsuit, stating that the students would have been taught a secular curriculum that isn’t necessarily protected as religious exercise.
Since then, Hirsch has continued his effort to open the school, saying during an interview that he received a message from God that he needed to help these children. But the Cities, Counties and Towns Committee decided to table the bill today on an 11-0 vote.
City Councilmen Fred Howe and Brad Ellis were in Richmond today lobbying legislators to vote against this bill. Ellis said today that the council's decision not to accept Calvary's special use permit had nothing to do with religious freedom.
"This was a business deal," he said. "Anytime a church wants to open up a day school or a daycare it is a land use and a zoning issue and there are implications at the local level that we need to be sensitive to."
Cole said during an earlier interview that the government shouldn't be regulating religious activities as long as there is no impact on the safety and welfare of the community. He said that local governments in the commonwealth have not acted consistently on these matters and that the scope of ministry should be the decision of the church, and not the government.
Howe owns a business next door to Calvary Christian Church. Although he abstained from voting on the church's special use permit, he has vocally opposed this legislation. He sent an email to Cole in January that stated he spent thousands of dollars to defend his property rights against the church. Some council members had concerns that Fair Winds would be operating the school and that Hirsch refused to reveal this during the public hearing process. Churches that have welcomed Fair Winds into their facilities have a history with the city of not getting the proper permits.
Fredericksburg Patch filed a Freedom of Information Act with the city for all records of zoning and code violations for places Fair Winds was operating. Records show that Fredericksburg Zoning Administrator Raymond Ocel Jr. wrote to Pastor Richard Dunk of Living World Fellowship Church on Stafford Avenue on May 17, 2010, and June 9, 2010, warning him that the church did not have the proper zoning approval to operate a school, and that if Dunk did not file for a special use permit by June 18, 2010, the school would have to cease operating.
On June 15, 2010, Fredericksburg Director of Building and Development Services wrote Dunk that the church had not undergone proper change of use to operate an educational facility in the church and that the occupancy permit would be revoked.
There's no record that Dunk every responded, and Fair Winds moved out of Living World Fellowship Church and into St. Mary's Catholic Church. On Aug. 2, 2010, Ocel noted that Fair Winds' Ed Murphy wrote the city on July 30, 2010, asking if it could operate at Calvary Christian Church prior to obtaining a special use permit, but Ocel declined. He said that the special use permit is necessary and that Fair Winds was in violation for operating the school in St. Mary's Catholic Church.
Since then, Fair Winds and Calvary have tried to convince the city, but have failed.
After two denials from City Council for a special use permit, an unsuccessful federal lawsuit and this tabled legislation, it is unclear what other steps Calvary Church can take to open this school. Hirsch said today that "we are considering a plethora of other options."
Hirsch was accompanied by other clergymen who supported the legislation in Richmond today but to no avail. He said that a strong coalition of support is forming.
"Under Robert’s Rules of Order, or parliamentary procedure, 'Laying on the table' is a legislative option for a subcommittee when they neither want to deny it or report it back to Committee," he said by email today. "The Bill is in this session effectively unable to move forward as it will not come out of committee. It is of course able to return in another form next session."