Although subtle, the dividing line between church and state was easily recognized at the recent meeting of the city council.
An hour-and-a-half-long campaign took place at Tuesday’s city council meeting to a packed house. The topic of the hearing was whether or not churches should be allowed to locate in the city’s central business district, comprised of downtown Sanford, Jonesboro and the town of Broadway, but the he focus was primarily on downtown Sanford.
Currently, the city’s Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) does not allow religious institutions (churches) to be in the central business district due to a zoning classification.
In April 1999, the city council addressed this similar issue and passed zoning ordinance changes that would encourage the relocation of religious institutions to other areas of the city.
At the same time, the council at the time reduced the regulations associated with other zoning districts. Churches that were already established in these areas were grandfathered.
Staff have been monitoring for possible unlicensed churches that may currently be operating in downtown Sanford and Jonesboro. Under the current zoning ordinance they would be in breach, but the religious institution could challenge that ordinance under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act 2000, also known as RLUIPA.
This federal law prohibits imposing charges on prisoners’ ability to worship as they see fit and gives churches and other religious institutions a way to avoid zoning law restrictions on the use of their property.
Council was split on the order voting 4-3 to defer the matter to a later date. Council members Byron Buckels, Charles Taylor and Jimmy Haire voted against tabling the question and Chas Post, Rebecca Wyhof Salmon and Samuel Gaskins voted in favor, with Mayor Chet Mann breaking the tie. Councilman James Williams was absent.
This decision came after the end of the public hearing and after the council heard comments from many people, mainly from the religious community.
Councilman Charles Taylor, who is also chairman of the Joint Planning Commission, said the potential lawsuits were one of many reasons he wanted the issue addressed. The nine-member commission is made up of representatives from Sanford, Lee County and Broadway to formulate a UDO that the three would follow in zoning and economic development.
Taylor said this type of order was wrong and should be removed. He said the city council knew it had to be sorted out before this meeting.
“This is a clean-up measure,” he said of the zoning ordinance removal.
“The League of Commons has warned us not to go down this road. (excluding churches) It is not for us to legislate.
He said being a Christian had a lot to do with trying to get rid of the prescription. He said while some activities taking place downtown might be considered risky, there is also a place for a church.
“You can have a business (downtown) where you have drag queens, but you can’t have a church there?” he said.
Bob Joyce, senior director of business retention and expansion for the Sanford Area Growth Alliance and member of the board of directors of Downtown Sanford Inc. (DSI) expressed his opposition to the removal of the ordinance during the ‘public audience.
“The central business district (downtown Sanford) is nine blocks away and I speak on behalf of that nine-block area,” he said.
He cited how Downtown Sanford Inc. worked to make the city’s downtown area more vibrant, with businesses moving into this area, where there were empty storefronts.
“We filled our empty storefronts and visitor traffic rebounded,” he said.
Limited parking was used to validate their point saying it would cause a problem and drive shoppers away from downtown businesses.
A representative of the Morning Star Law Group, of Raleigh, who Joyce says is an expert in land use and zoning, was present at the public hearing and also spoke on behalf of DSI regarding the order.
On Wednesday, DSI released a statement regarding the actions the board took at Tuesday’s meeting.
“We are pleased with the council’s actions last night as it gives us the opportunity to work with downtown businesses and the faith community to develop an ordinance that supports small retail businesses and restaurants while recognizing the importance of faith-based organizations downtown. and in all neighborhoods of Sanford.
The statement and the council’s decision to table it come after a great show of force from the faith community at Tuesday’s meeting. There were many people from the Christian community who had something to say about the ordinance during the public hearing.
Daniel Owens, a local resident, told council they were moving too fast with this (order) at the public hearing.
“All we need is an opportunity,” he said of having a church downtown. “We need a space there. We come together to say that we deserve a place.
His wife, Angela Cook, said people should see all aspects of this city, including those that are faith-based.
“We should want to establish a framework for people to see what Sanford is,” she said.
Greg Davenport, senior pastor of 1Hope Church, said he was pleased with the progress made to improve the city’s downtown area.
“I liked all the improvements to downtown,” he says. “We find it exciting to be at Sanford right now.”
He said that excluding churches would not hinder the progress that has been made, but would contribute to it.
“Cancel the prescription,” he said. “We still believe in hometown values, but we also believe in economic success.”
Dale Sauls, senior pastor of Life Springs Church, said he’s sought preliminary legal advice on the matter, but thinks it doesn’t have to come to that.
“It’s not our heart,” he said. “We want to work with the city.
He added that he considers the order to be discriminatory and should be removed as soon as possible.
Nina Tomlinson, 17, said she represents young Christians and wonders why the church’s presence in some areas is in question.
She told the council that the city allows places like Hugger Mugger to open drag queens, but the council does not want churches.
“With all my heart I want change in the city, but if it’s not with God, I can’t have it,” she said.
After the public hearing, some council members went into defensive mode after more than an hour of hearing public opinions.
Councilman Samuel Gaskins said there are a lot of churches in Sanford and he is researching downtown business owners and the impact a church could have on keeping it going.
Councilor Chas Post, who made the motion to drop the ordinance, said he was a Christian and believed that with the church and council working together they should find a positive solution for everyone.
Councilman Byron Buckels agreed to quote a scripture in the Bible from the book of Luke “There is no room in the inn”.
He said he didn’t want to be part of that “tag”, believing there was room for a church and it started with communication.
“We need to have discussions on this issue,” he said.
Councilor Rebecca Wyhof Salmon, soon to become the city’s new mayor, also expressed the need for solidarity.
“Having you all here is an exciting opportunity to work together to solve this problem,” she said. “We need space together and to have more conversation.”
Mayor Mann said he was a man of faith, but there is work to be done on this issue.
“Some of these (downtown) business owners have invested their lives in business,” he said. “Let’s have some decorum and civility. No one is against the Lord, but we must do our duty.
During the meeting, Councilman Jimmy Haire pointed out that after July 26, the composition of the council would be different and could impact the outcome of the ordinance when it returns for a vote. There are two council seats that will have new members at that time.
Still, Taylor thinks the board dropped the ball on that, when it knew what to do.
“We know what’s right and we don’t do what’s right,” he told the meeting. “I hope we are not ‘Sanford, Open for Business’ and ‘Closed for God’”
When the meeting officially ended around 11:45 p.m., he reiterated his feelings about the events of the evening.
“God has been put on the back burner tonight,” he said as he walked out of the council chamber.