After a small Baptist congregation says it felt unwelcome in a North Carolina city, elected officials there took action this week to quell the controversy and avoid going to federal court.
The City Council of Monroe was sued in June by At The Cross Fellowship Church.
Monroe’s local regulations on where churches could locate amounted to “unequal treatment” and were unconstitutional, alleged Erik Stanley, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, a national religious liberty advocacy group that represented the Baptist church in its lawsuit.
The issue arose after planners in the city of 35,000 rewrote local rules on where businesses, churches and other services could locate. The zoning rules restricted worship centers from holding services in three-fourths of a heavily-commercial/business area inside city limits.
The city has said it never intended to infringe on religious freedom but instead wanted to encourage and steer business growth. Mayor Bobby Kilgore told the Observer in June churches are “absolutely” welcome in Monroe and the city wanted to resolve the legal issue.
When church members sued, leaders had already signed a lease and made renovations inside a building where the congregation gathers weekly. Such a worship gathering, according to the city, violated zoning rules.
But the restriction was lifted Tuesday.
City Council members voted unanimously during a meeting Tuesday to change the rules and allow churches to locate everywhere that businesses and other services, like libraries, can. A City Council document from the meeting shows elected leaders were advised by Monroe’s municipal attorney to reverse their earlier zoning restriction.
Stanley said Monroe leaders should be “commended” for taking action to follow federal law.
“The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious. The city has done the right thing in correcting the flaws in its zoning code so that all religious congregations will benefit,” Stanley said in a statement Thursday.
At The Cross Fellowship has dropped its lawsuit against the city in response to the change.
Monroe’s city attorney says elected leaders would have re-evaluated the zoning restrictions, given the church’s concerns — even if they hadn’t filed a lawsuit.