CHARLOTTE, NC (Anna Douglas/Charlotte Observer) - Even the Bible Belt is a tough climate for some churches, says a lawyer for a small Baptist congregation in North Carolina.
In Monroe, about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte, a church is suing local officials, alleging the city of Monroe is violating a federal law that's supposed to protect religious institutions from discrimination.
The case saw renewed attention this week as President Donald Trump's administration announced a federal crackdown on religious discrimination.
The issue centers on local rules that dictate where some businesses, civic activities and other facilities can locate.
Erik Stanley, a lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, a national religious liberty advocacy group, says At The Cross Fellowship Baptist Church in Monroe has been told its members cannot worship in a building where city rules would otherwise allow for a museum, an art gallery or even a library.
"It's unequal treatment and it's inexcusable in this day and age," Stanley says.
The controversy began after At The Cross Fellowship signed a lease for a new worship space in January. After renovating the building, church members sought occupancy permits from the local government.
But city officials told the church that holding worship services in the building would violate local zoning rules.
Since the church filed suit this month, the city has offered a compromise of sorts, but Stanley says church members will not drop their fight until Monroe lifts its restrictions on where religious assemblies can gather.
Monroe introduced the restrictions last year when city officials sought to re-do zoning rules in a mostly commercial area that sits between downtown and a major highway. The plan was to make the area more visitor and business-friendly and help shape an economic gateway into the city along Concord Avenue.
But, instead, the new rules invited scrutiny.
The U.S. Department of Justice this week said its federal prosecutors will get tougher with cities and towns that use local zoning rules to unfairly target houses of worship and religious institutions.
A DOJ spokesperson would not say whether federal prosecutors will join At The Cross Fellowship's lawsuit or whether the federal agency is investigating in Monroe.
Stanley says the federal government has the authority to do both.
"That's where the DOJ can bring some muscle to bear," he said. "We're seeing a new phase where the DOJ is being very active in wanting to make sure churches are not being discriminated against."
Monroe city officials, though, say they're trying to be helpful and resolve the conflict.
"We have a lot of churches in the city of Monroe. We're trying to make sure that these folks have the ability to be where they want to be," said City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan.
In response to the church's lawsuit, Shah-Khan said he doesn't believe the city's zoning is discriminatory.
The city has offered to create a special exception for At The Cross Fellowship Baptist Church to hold its services in an area where churches aren't technically allowed. That rezoning request for an exception would normally require a $300 application fee to the city, but Shah-Khan says Monroe city officials will waive the fee for At The Cross Fellowship.
The attorney also said city officials are considering reverting back to the area's initial zoning, which would allow a church to locate there without issue.
Monroe Mayor Bobby Kilgore said he was somewhat surprised when the conflict escalated into a lawsuit. The zoning issue, he said, could be fixed if the church would accept the offer from the city to waive the fee and create a special exception.
"Absolutely they're welcome," Kilgore said. "They've been treated like anybody else. I don't know what else we can do."