Last month, a church known as Love of Life Fellowship, Inc. (the “Church”) sued the County of Chesterfield, Virginia, alleging religious discrimination resulting from its desired acquisition and use of 38 acres at 500 Baptist Drive in Chester, Virginia (the “Property”). The Church has used the Property for two years for religious worship and other activities, including community outreach, serving the homeless, assisting those struggling with and recovering from addiction, helping veterans, and providing youth programs. The Church filed suit after the County sought an injunction to prevent the Church from operating at the Property.
According to the Church’s Complaint, the Property is located in the “agricultural” zoning district where a “house of worship” is a permitted use. The Property, which is owned by Whitmill Investment Corporation, was previously built as a “church compound” containing a chapel, two dormitory buildings, an apartment building, an administrative building, a classroom building, and three manufactured homes. Approximately twenty years ago, Atlantic Bible College obtained a special permit to use the Property as a school in addition to the permitted use as a church. After Atlantic Bible College left the Property, there have been church meetings and activities performed by other religious groups over the years.
The Church has been delayed in acquiring the Property because the County asserts that the activities conducted by the Church are not allowed. The Complaint alleges:
Chesterfield County is misusing its police powers and its zoning ordinances to shut down the Love of Life Fellowship, stop their right to gather and worship, and diminish the value of … the [P]roperty with the predatory abuse of their zoning powers. These actions by the [County] are a direct violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as well as the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions.
The Church further alleges that the County’s actions have “slandered and defamed the owners, slandered and defamed the tenants and prospective tenants, and as a direct result have caused the loss of contracts, business expectancy, and associated income from the [P]roperty.” According to the Church, it has been singled out by County officials who have “personal disdain” for the current pastor and his wife. The Complaint alleges that one County official stated that “any property in the [C]ounty could be used for a Church, except 500 Baptist Drive.”
The County’s position is very different than the Church’s. The County believes that the uses and activities being conducted by the Church exceed the scope of the special permit issued twenty years prior to Atlantic Bible College. The County requests that the Church go through the appropriate zoning process to use the Property for these other uses and activities. In a statement, the County said: “Eight years ago, the defendants in this case voluntarily requested that a private school and/or college would be the only allowed use of the property at 500 Baptist Drive…. For two years, the [C]ounty has encouraged the defendants to follow the proper process to change the legal use of the [P]roperty.”