A Florida county is being sued for demanding that a church’s charter school for at-risk students go through a $10,000 application process but then rejecting the application anyway.
The case against Sarasota County was brought by the Alliance Defending Freedom on behalf of Crosspoint Church in U.S. District Court in Tampa.
The church opened a Christian school in its facilities in 2013 to serve at-risk children by offering an individualized, faith-based education.
After it had been operating for three years, the county “demanded that the church obtain a ‘special exception’ in order to continue operating the school in the church’s own building.”
“After the church submitted its application – a time-consuming and uncertain process costing over $10,000 – the Sarasota County Board of Commissioners refused to grant the exception and threatened the church with daily fines of $250 per day if it continued to educate children on its property,” ADF said.
The issue, however, is that “the county itself permits secular assemblies as of right in the church’s zoning district, including youth-oriented community services, nonprofit community recreational facilities, theaters, libraries, museums, neighborhood arts centers, philanthropic institutions, senior centers, union halls and health club spas,” the complaint explains.
That means the county’s decision was treating the church “on less than equal terms with nonreligious schools and other secular assemblies and institutions,” the complaint states.
“It also has substantially burdened their free exercise of religion, infringed their right to peaceable assembly, and violated their right to equal protection of the law,” it says.
That has cost the church and school “monetary damages.”
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“Crosspoint Church simply seeks to serve the community by providing a quality Christian education to children with learning disabilities and that come from underprivileged homes,” said ADF Legal Counsel Kyle McCutcheon. “Unfortunately, Sarasota County is blocking this valuable community service with arbitrary and expensive regulation.
“Worse still, the county would allow Englewood Church to host a secular charter school on its property but will not allow it to host a private Christian school that’s motivated by its convictions. The school’s students and their parents deserve continued access to the high-quality education they have already chosen – Without interference from Sarasota County.”
“The government can’t discriminate against churches or schools simply because they are religious,” said ADF Legal Counsel Christiana Holcomb. “Despite making every effort to work with the county and being forced to forgo thousands of dollars that could be better invested in serving their students, Crosspoint Church is now being told they must either stop educating children or pay severe fines. Federal law is clear: The county’s discriminatory practices violate the law.”
The complaint points out the church’s 45 members bore the burden of the application process, because “one way the church loves and serves its community – and shares the Gospel with its community – is through operating a Christian school for students who have learning disabilities and come from underprivileged homes.”
The county’s planning commission unanimously had recommended approval of the church’s plan.
The commissioners, however, said it would be “detrimental to the character of the neighborhood.”
The county also assessed crippling fines of $40,000 and placed a lien on the church’s property, the complaint notes.
The complaint contends the county is violating is the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits local governments from treating religious groups differently than secular groups.