Florida county to religious school: You can’t serve children here

ADF attorneys file suit against Sarasota County for discriminatory zoning practices
Tuesday, March 26, 2019

 
ENGLEWOOD, Fla. – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit Monday on behalf of a church and religious school against Sarasota County, Florida, after it forced the church to go through a $10,000 special exemption process, not required of numerous secular assemblies or institutions, and then denied the church’s zoning request.

In 2013, Englewood Church of the Nazarene, known locally as Crosspoint Church, started a Christian school to serve at-risk students by offering an individualized, faith-based education. More than three years after the school opened, Sarasota County demanded that the church obtain a “special exception” in order to continue operating the school in the church’s own building. After the church submitted its application—a time-consuming and uncertain process costing over $10,000—the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners refused to grant the exception and threatened the church with daily fines of $250 per day if it continued to educate children on its property.

“Crosspoint Church simply seeks to serve the community by providing a quality Christian education to children with learning disabilities and that come from underprivileged homes,” said ADF Legal Counsel Kyle McCutcheon. “Unfortunately, Sarasota County is blocking this valuable community service with arbitrary and expensive regulation. Worse still, the county would allow Englewood Church to host a secular charter school on its property but will not allow it to host a private Christian school that’s motivated by its convictions. The school’s students and their parents deserve continued access to the high-quality education they have already chosen—without interference from Sarasota County.”

As the complaint notes, under Florida law, any charter school is legally permitted to operate in a church building. Sarasota County also allows secular organizations to operate within the same district as Crosspoint Church without seeking special exceptions. These secular organizations include youth-oriented community services, nonprofit community recreational facilities, theatres, libraries, museums, neighborhood arts centers, philanthropic institutions, senior centers, union halls, and health club spas.

“The government can’t discriminate against churches or schools simply because they are religious,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Despite making every effort to work with the county and being forced to forgo thousands of dollars that could be better invested in serving their students, Crosspoint Church is now being told they must either stop educating children or pay severe fines. Federal law is clear: The county’s discriminatory practices violate the law.”

A federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prohibits the government from treating religious groups worse than secular groups in zoning matters. Passed by unanimous consent of both the House and Senate and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the law prevents the government from engaging in such discrimination.

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, Englewood Church of the Nazarene v. Sarasota County, in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Mark Anderson, one of more than 3,300 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel in the case for the church.
 
 
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
 
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