By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
HOLLY SPRINGS – Opulent Life Church and its pastor, Telsa DeBerry, have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Holly Springs over zoning requirements that the church claims are infringing on its rights. The suit is supported by the Texas-based Liberty Institute.
The church filed in September 2011 for a permit to renovate space at 122 Memphis St., on the Square, but has yet to receive permission. DeBerry says the church’s current quarters are barely big enough for the 18 or so people who currently attend and is stifling the congregation’s growth.
The suit holds that the city imposes regulations on churches that don’t apply to other entities, violating aspects of the U.S. Constitution’s 1st and 14th amendments and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. It also asks for an immediate injunction against enforcing part of the zoning code.
“We believe that the statute and case law is very clear, that the city’s ordinance is discriminating against the church and treating it on less than equal terms and therefore is patently illegal,” said Reed Martz, an Oxford attorney who is handling the case locally.
One contested element is a requirement that churches get approval from 60 percent of property owners within a 1,300-foot radius.
Board of Aldermen attorney Kizer Jones said, “I don’t think you are singling out churches to require that. In a certain location, you’re going to want the input of folks around you. That’s reasonable.”
One of the city’s concerns about having a storefront church on the Square, Jones said, is space for cars.
“I’ve heard people say that there’s plenty of parking on the Square on Sunday morning,” he said. “But what about the Wednesday 2 o’clock funeral conducted at a church?”
He added that numerous factors go into deciding zoning requirements.
“As with most things, it’s going to have to be a balancing act to mete out rights to everybody.”
Mayor Andre DeBerry says Opulent Life Church is not being singled out.
“The city has not rejected anything. We do not understand what they’re objecting to,” he said. “They have not finished the process.”
“We signed a lease that is contingent upon getting the necessary approvals from the city,” Martz said. “The church wants to be there.”