A Pennsylvania family filed a lawsuit against a Pittsburgh suburb on Wednesday after being ordered by local officials to stop using their property for Bible studies and other Christian events.
Sewickley Heights Borough, located 15 miles west of Pittsburgh, served Scott and Terri Fetterolf a cease and desist order last October stating the couple was violating local zoning ordinances by hosting Bible studies, worship events, religious retreats, religious fundraisers, picnics and weddings, something they and the prior owner have done for decades on the 35-acre farm property.
The Fetterolfs purchased the land in 2003 with the express desire to carry on the tradition.
Its primary purpose remains as a working farm and home to the couple.
Jeremy Samek — senior counsel with the Independence Law Center, which is representing the Fetterolfs — told The Western Journal, that the borough served the cease and desist order regarding hosting events after a neighbor who moved into the area within the last few years complained about the increased vehicle traffic some of the events brought.
Samek said rather than addressing the traffic issue, the borough came in with a broad ruling prohibiting events as small as a Bible study for 10-15 people inside the couple’s home unless they apply ahead of time to get a conditional land use variance, which involves having a public hearing, with a 45-day comment period, and paying a fee of $20 to $40 for every event.
If the Fetterolfs fail to follow this procedure, they will be fined $500 for each Bible study held.
The borough completely banned larger events — such as religious retreats or fundraisers (typically involving 15 or more people) — because they constitute “religious assemblies,” which are not authorized on the farm land.
Samek conceded that the borough certainly has the right to enforce reasonable noise and event size ordinances, but officials had not proceeded that way.
“They had proceeded by making absolute bans,” he said. “That is a big problem.”
Before filing the suit, the Independence Law Center reached out to Sewickley Heights Borough to explain why their cease and desist order is too expansive, constituting a breach of the Fetterolfs’ First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion and assembly, but the local officials did not back down.
In the public interest law firm’s complaint, which was filled in federal district court in western Pennsylvania, the attorneys argue not only are their clients’ First Amendment rights being violated, but their constitutional guarantee to equal protection under the law, as well.
The complaint notes that those hosting non-religous gatherings such as book clubs, bonfires, farm-to-table events, political fundraisers, equestrian club meetings, and garden club meetings — to name some which are happening on others’ similarly zoned properties — are not being told to cease and desist under the threat of financial penalties, while their clients are.
“Government should not target religious activities for punishment, particularly when similar secular activities are permitted.” Samek said in a statement released by the Independence Law Center.
“In America, no government can categorically ban people from assembling to worship on one’s own property,” he added.
The Western Journal reached out to the Sewickley Heights Borough for comment, but received no reply.
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