RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A northern Virginia church told a Fourth Circuit panel Wednesday it shouldn’t need to get a liquor license to hold worship services on its agriculturally zoned property.
The zoning dispute between Alive Church of the Nazarene in Bristow, Virginia, and Prince William County began in 2020 when the church's pastor, Allen Perdue, met with the county's zoning administrator about allowing his congregation to meet on land purchased by the church until their building is constructed.
Because the church lacked the necessary funding to comply with the rules of a special use permit, the administrator suggested they apply for a “bona fide agricultural use” permit in the interim, as other properties under that zoning, including farm wineries and breweries, are allowed to have large gatherings of people.
The only problem was the church would need to get a liquor license first and it doesn't want to be associated with alcohol.
The church sued the county in Alexandria federal court last year, claiming it was being treated unfairly compared to wineries and breweries by having to go against its beliefs to hold large gatherings.
"The Church meets all the requirements and has all the necessary approvals to be treated by Defendant County as a bona fide agricultural use as a farm winery or brewery to conduct agritourism activities, but for its sincerely held religious beliefs against alcohol," the complaint states.
U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, a Bill Clinton appointee, granted the county's motion to dismiss the case for failure to state a claim.
On appeal to the Fourth Circuit, the church, represented by attorney Benjamin Sisney of the American Center for Law and Justice, argued the lower court should have let the case play out.
“This is a case about a church trying to worship on its property,” Sisney told the three-judge panel.
In an effort to comply with the agricultural permit, the church decided to grow apples to be used for non-alcoholic cider in addition to holding worship services on Sunday mornings. The administrator approved the church's request, but said they would have to also apply for a winery or brewery license from the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. That goes against the tenets of the Nazarene Church, which prohibits the selling or promotion of alcohol.
“In the end, the Church is excluded from using its Property in the same way as agricultural uses like wineries, breweries, and agritourism activities despite the fact that the Church explicitly alleged that it would also conduct agricultural activities," the church’s brief to the Richmond-based appeals court states.
The county, represented by deputy county attorney Allen Smith, argues the zoning administrator’s letter about the liquor license was not the county advising the church what to do but instead just a procedural notice issued to applicants that states what is lawful and unlawful according to code.
The county's perspective is that the church must fulfill the obligations of a special use permit like any other organization if they would like to use agriculturally designated land for worship services rather than trying to worship via a loophole in the code.
Smith told the three-judge panel that worship services are different from weddings, concerts or other meetings held at wineries or breweries because they are not an activity that helps to keep the property as agricultural land in the future.
The county's attorney argued that Perdue and his congregation are proposing a church, not an agritourism meeting place like the law allows for.
The church planned on building a barn on the property that would not only comply with the needs of the zoning rules for agricultural land but would also be used as a place of worship.
U.S. Circuit Judge Toby Heytens, an appointee of President Joe Biden, asked Sisney why the church didn’t pursue a temporary activities permit rather than trying to be a church that does farming on the side.
Sisney replied that the temporary activities permit is restrictive in that it only allows for a certain number of people to meet at a time. Heytens said agriculturally zoned properties like wineries also have capacity limits, to which Sisney responded the church would have multiple services to allow for the appropriate amount of people to gather.
The church is still working on obtaining a special use permit, but it could take awhile for construction of a church to begin considering the financial obstacles. The congregation currently meets at an elementary school, but Sisney said many members attend online.
Heytens was joined on the panel by U.S. Circuit Judge Robert King, a Clinton appointee, and U.S. District Judge Sherri Lydon, a Donald Trump appointee sitting by designation from the District of South Carolina. The judges did not indicate when they will issue a ruling.
Sisney declined to comment after the hearing. Smith said he eagerly awaits the panel's decision.
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