Del. Mark Cole said today the government shouldn’t regulate religious activities in a church and that is the motivation behind a bill that would permit private schools and day care centers in churches without any government approval.
House Bill 1196 would directly impact churches like Calvary Christian Church that in 2010 sought a special-use permit to lease space to a day school serving children with developmental or emotional disabilities. The City Council voted in a 3-3 tie on the matter (Ward 3 Councilor Fred Howe abstained), and the measure was defeated.
“As long as it is not affecting the safety and welfare of the people involved or the community why should the government be involved with regulating it?” Cole said today.
Cole's legislation has upset some council members, including Howe, who wrote a personal email to Cole this weekend.
After council denied the application, Calvary Christian filed a 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 August 2011, .
In November 2011, U.S. District Judge John Gibney dismissed the church’s lawsuit in a 15-page opinion, stating that students would have been taught a secular curriculum that isn’t necessarily protected as religious exercise.
"Calvary has not pled any facts demonstrating that the operation of the day school by a third party is a religious exercise. Talismanic assertions lacking factual support are insufficient,” the judge wrote.
Cole said the legislation originated from the request of local churches, one of them being Calvary Christian Church. Pastor Michael Hirsch declined to comment other than to say via email, “You’ll need to ask Delegate Cole what motivated Him. I have no comment but, I will inform our attorney who is handling the Court proceedings of your inquiry.”
The attorney representing the church could not immediately be reached for comment.
Cole said the zoning is not consistently applied across the state. “Some localities require special-use permits or rezonings and others take the attitude that if it is a part of their church then they don’t need to do anything with the zoning,” Cole said. “I think the legislation is good policy. I think it is up to the church to define the scope of their ministry.”
Councilman Howe, who also is running for city mayor, said today he does not think this is good legislation. Howe owns land that is adjacent to the church, and he sent an email to Cole on Jan. 21 expressing his concerns.
“I personally spent thousands of dollars defending my business against this particular issue you are sponsoring and I want to make sure you have all the facts,” Howe wrote. “I assume Calvary [Christian] Church came to you to sponsor this legislation – you must take the time to see personally for yourself from our City Council video records exactly what our City has already witnessed with respect to opening this Pandora’s box by your proposed legislation at the State level (let’s learn from our recent and very expensive legal experience – please!) and what it would mean specifically to surrounding businesses, homeowner / tax payers who will be subjected to the fall out, if your bill is allowed to move forward. I sincerely hope you haven’t been privy to the Fredericksburg City Council proceedings and law suits that have been finally concluded on this matter – because I can’t imagine you would be sponsoring this bill if you had received full disclosure.”