'We're going to continue to push forward:' Church files lawsuit to remain open
CHESTER, VA (WWBT) - A Chester church is hoping a federal court will allow them to keep their doors open.
Love of Life Fellowship on 500 Baptist Road has called a more than 30 acre property home for two years. Their church is involved in community outreach, serving the homeless, helping those struggling with and recovering from addiction, helping house homeless veterans, as well as programs for youth.
"We just try to give those without a voice a voice," said Pastor Chris Lane. "We're not doing anything wrong really, other than loving on [people]...what would Jesus do?...If there's people that need to loved on and a hand up, that's what we do."
A hearing in circuit court Thursday was set to determine what is next in an ongoing issue between Love of Life Fellowship and Chesterfield County.
"They're trying to use their police zoning powers to stop Love of Life Fellowship from worshiping and using the church facility," said attorney John Janson.
Janson says the church is protected under the Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act, which he says "preempts counties, or cities or governments from using their zoning powers to interfere with churches, or church services, or worship."
A lawsuit has been filed on behalf of Love of Life Fellowship, after Chesterfield County filed a request for an injunction to stop the church and its ministries from operating on the property.
Court documents state that the county has received several complaints since 2016 about the use of the property.
"These uses included housing for the homeless and drug addicts, church services, vacation bible school for minor children unaccompanied by their parents, and month luncheons open to the public."
The county says the church has continued to violate a conditional use permit for the property, which allowed it to be used for a private school or college. In the court documents, it states that county staff observed violations of the use of the property from September 2017 to March 2018.
"The biggest concern that people who have talked to us, and we have had, is the lack of transparency around what is occurring and what will occur at 500 Baptist Drive in the future, and the effect on our neighborhood, our children who walk past to go to school and our own safety and security," explained neighbor Melissa Dunn. "We just are really worry about some of the things that have been done, not only in violation of the zoning laws, but that make some of us very fearful."
Dunn says she and her husband George Henderson are not against the work of the church.
"We are compassionate and kind people. We embrace diversity. We have a heart for the homeless and the hungry. We would be keen to help if we could get some information that was above board and open and transparent. There might be in the neighborhood any number of volunteers," she said. "We respect the work Chris and Stacy have done in the past."
In a statement, Chesterfield County said the following about the zoning issues:
Chesterfield County supports all lawful uses of property in the county. Eight years ago, the defendants in this case voluntarily requested that a private school and/or college would be the only allowable use of the property at 500 Baptist Drive. The defendants have used the property for other uses. For two years, the county has encouraged the defendants to follow the proper process to change the legal use of the property. The county is asking, through its petition for injunction, that the defendants follow the existing requirements for the property or request an amendment to allow more uses of the property.
Pastor Lane and his wife say they want to continue to do the work they are passionate about, asking that the courts see that as well. Lane says they have continued to receive an outpouring of support from the communities they serve.
"We're going to continue to push forward, and we're going to serve, I'm going to serve the Lord and the communities till the day we die," said Lane.
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