Church seeking rental space sues Delanco

A fledgling, predominantly African American church with no permanent home is suing a Burlington County town after municipal land-use officials denied the group a variance to rent space in a warehouse building for services.

The 25-member My Father's House Ministry filed the lawsuit against Delanco on Monday in federal court in Camden, accusing the township of "unlawful actions" and for instituting a "discriminatory zoning ordinance."

The township's Joint Land Use Board in June rejected the church's application for a use variance at the building on the 900 block of Coopertown Road, which is zoned for industrial purposes and houses an asphalt business.

Concerns raised by board members and residents at the June 3 hearing included availability of parking, safety surrounding a detention basin, and hunting in the area, according to the meeting's minutes. The church argued that another church had used the now-vacant space for about a decade, though the minutes indicate that was not done with board approval.

"Unfortunately, across the country we see a lack of accommodation for religious land uses," said Noel Sterett, an attorney for the church with the Chicago-based firm Mauck & Baker, which specializes in religious-freedom cases. "Rather than working with the church, local boards tend to be strict to their code."

The lawsuit contends that Delanco permits "assembly uses" - such as municipal buildings, child-care centers, recreational facilities, and "adult-entertainment businesses such as nude dancing" - in industrial zones and other districts. But, the suit states, churches are explicitly allowed in only one district in town - where there is currently no "suitable option" for a new church. Other districts in town either do not permit churches or allow them on "conditional" bases, according to the lawsuit.

The suit seeks an injunction forcing the town to allow the church to use the space.

Sterett said My Father's House leaders hope Delanco and the church can reach a resolution for the church to rent the warehouse space. Attorneys for Delanco and its Joint Land Use Board did not return requests for comment Tuesday.

"We have experienced unequal treatment in attempting to find a permanent space to worship," the Rev. Donshae L. Joyner, of Edgewater Park, said. Joyner said he and others started the church - with beliefs similar to Baptists - in 2012.

Since its founding, congregants have struggled to find a consistent meeting space. They've used a hotel, other area churches, Joyner's home, a mall, and, most recently, an elementary school. "It creates a huge problem in trying to attract new congregants," Joyner said, and "instability."

The church and the owner of the property had agreed to allow the group to rent more than a fifth of the 10,000-square-foot building, using two floors for worship services, Bible study, Sunday school, and other uses. The space was attractive to the church in part for its affordability: $1,650 per month.

"We just want to have a place where we can worship freely," Joyner said.

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