By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
HOLLY SPRINGS – The U.S. Department of Justice has joined a Holly Springs church’s lawsuit against the city in an effort to relocate the church to the downtown square.
Opulent Life Church and Pastor Telsa DeBerry, supported by the Texas-based Liberty Institute, filed suit in January to ask the U.S. District Court for Northern Mississippi to stop the the city from enforcing part of its zoning ordinance that restricts churches in ways that it does not restrict other entities.
Those restrictions have forced the church, which had agreed to rent storefront space on the Holly Springs square, to remain in crowded quarters that it contends have kept it from growing.
Chief Judge Michael Mills turned down the request for an injunction prohibiting enforcement of the ordinance. The plaintiffs filed an appeal with the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The ordinance imposes special requirements on churches which are unlike any imposed on similar uses – no other use requires approval by neighbors, the Mayor, or the Board of Aldermen,” the Justice Department states in a “friend of the court” brief in support of the church.
“The provisions are particularly troubling because they would allow neighbors or officials to exclude any religious community from virtually any part of the city and for any reason, even if the motive is bias against the group’s religious affiliation or racial identity.”
The Justice Department also contends that the court was in error in its judgment about the issue of irreparable harm to the congregation.
“The church alleged that it is already harmed because (a) the smaller space prevents growth, (b) some potential members have failed to join because the current church building is so small, and (c) the size of the current building requires some meetings be held outside and to be held only when weather permits,” the brief states.
It further contends that since the church is likely to succeed in its case, it only need show “likelihood of harm” rather than near certainty for the Court of Appeals to vacate the lower court’s decision.