The Borough of Sewickley Heights in Pennsylvania allows the owners of its semi-rural properties to hold book clubs and bonfires, child health fundraisers, Harry Potter parties, royal-wedding parties, farm-to-table events, Heart Association and political fundraisers, birthday parties, equestrian club meetings, baby showers and graduation parties.
But on that land, Bible studies are banned.
So is an event called “worship night” as well as a fundraiser for Kenya Christian Education Partnership.
The discrimination has prompted a lawsuit by Scott and Theresa Fetterolf against the local government for violations of the owners’ religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and equal protection.
The Independent Law Center is defending the couple against the Pittsburgh-area town’s order to “cease and desist” from using their 35-acre property to host Bible studies, worship events and other religious activities or face a daily $500 fine plus court costs.
Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the center, said government should not target religious activities for punishment, particularly when similar secular activities are permitted.
“In America, no government can categorically ban people from assembling to worship on one’s own property,” he said.
The Family Research Council in Washington said that while it “continues to witness a persistent rise in religious persecution around the world, this latest incident in Pittsburgh is a sobering reminder that persecution is also happening in our own backyard.”
“That’s why the couple’s stand against the borough is all the more important – to make government officials think twice before pursuing unconstitutional legal action against people of faith,” FRC said.
The Fetterolfs had attended religious services and events on the property when the previous owner, Nancy Chalfant, was scheduling them. They bought the farming property to allow the events to continue, the complaint explains.
Historically, it has been the scene of seminary picnics, seminary board meetings, events for the Pittsburgh Institute for Youth Ministry, Bible studies and various church fundraisers.
The complaint noted Sewickley Heights is threatening the Fetterolfs with fines of $500 per day for “having Bible studies at their home, having meetings where religious songs are sung, conducting any religious retreats for church leaders or seminary students for prayer or for camaraderie-building/fellowship time.”
But the borough continues to allow other events, such as “graduation parties that include music or a live band.”
“There is no compelling interest in prohibiting Bible studies, meetings where religious songs are sung, religious retreats/fellowship, and religious fundraisers when secular counterparts of these activities are permitted,” said the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
The land, which is used primarily as a farm, contains a residence, a barn, well house, garage, guest cabin and other out-buildings.
The couple has “a sincerely held religious belief that they are to meet with others to study the Bible, to gather with others to worship (i.e., sing religious songs), to share in religious fellowship and refreshment and provide for others to do so.”
The complaint charges the town has unfairly burdened their faith, refuses to deal with them on equal terms, is violating the free exercise and free speech clauses, and more. It asks for an order to allow the events to resume and compensation for damages.