Summit Church, founded in 1991 in Elkins, West Virginia, is suing the Randolph County Development Authority for thwarting the Church’s plans to purchase property for its religious use. The Church already owns property in Elkins, but it claims that it is not large enough to accommodate the Church’s needs and that it must hold religious worship services elsewhere. Since 2012, the Church has leased space in a local movie theater to hold Sunday morning religious services. The movie theater is a venue for all types of performances, including music and variety shows, Christmas concerts, and bluegrass concerts.
The Church and the owners of the movie theater property entered into a sale-leaseback arrangement whereby the Church would purchase the property and then lease it back to the theater for five years. According to the Church, use of the theater property would remain largely unchanged after the sale.
But the Randolph County Development Authority, which assists businesses in Randolph County through real estate development and in other ways, nixed the proposed sale. Back in 1997, the Authority had purchased the former CSX rail-yard, subdivided it, and then sold individual parcels to buyers subject to covenants with the express purpose of redeveloping the former rail-yard “as a commercial mixed-used district that reflects the history and culture of the site.” The covenants also require that the rail-yard area “shall be used for commercial businesses, public and private offices, residential developments with certain restrictions, common areas (e.g. Town Square), and recreational purposes only.” The movie theater property was a part of the former rail-yard and thus is subject to the covenants.
On October 26, 2015, the Authority held a special meeting and concluded that the church was not an acceptable land use in the former rail-yard and that the sale to the church for that use would violate the covenants. The Authority gave the owners of the theater 14 days to acknowledge that they would not convey the property, and threatened a lawsuit if the owners did not comply. Instead, the owners, along with the Church, sued the Authority. They allege that the Authority has violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause, and substantive due process rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as state law
The complaint in Summit Church v. Randolph County Development Authority (N.D. WV 2015) is available here.