ACLJ Sues VA County for Unlawful Discrimination Against a Church, Requiring It To Get a Liquor License in Order To Use Its Own Property for Worship and Ministry
In the United States, believers and churches enjoy certain protections and rights secured by the U.S. Constitution and statutes in the face of discrimination and mistreatment by the government. From its founding, the ACLJ has fought to protect those rights for believers and churches. Now we’re doing it again.
Today, the ACLJ is filing a new lawsuit in federal court in Virginia on behalf of a church we represent – Alive Church of the Nazarene. This lawsuit is a religious land use/zoning case we are bringing under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) statutes and the United States Constitution.
Here’s what happened. Prince William County, a powerful county in northern Virginia in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. – and one of the richest counties in the nation – is blocking our client, a church, from worshiping and functioning on their land because the church cannot get an ABC license (a liquor license) because of its denominational stance on alcohol.
That’s right – the county is requiring our client – a church – to get a liquor license in order to use its own property. This church doesn’t so much as serve wine with communion. It’s that absurd what the county is doing. It would let the church operate like it lets breweries or wineries operate and do many of the same things that the wineries and breweries do – events, gatherings, outdoor music and firepits, fruit picking, Christmas trees, pumpkin patches, etc. – all while being exempted from expensive and time-consuming zoning and land use requirements, if it gets a liquor license.
But our client cannot get that ABC license because of its sincerely held denominational religious beliefs. So Prince William County won’t treat them the same. It won’t treat them as favorably as it does wineries. Of course, wineries and breweries generate significant tax revenue. Churches do not.
In so many words, our client asked the county, “How do we get treated as favorably as breweries and wineries?” The county’s response, “Go get a liquor license.”
To make matters worse, the whole reason the church has been trying to use this property is because it was prevented from using the public school it had been renting due to COVID restrictions. It had the right to rent out the public school due to a Supreme Court case we won back in the ‘90s, Lamb's Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District. But now it’s being barred from using its own property. Once again, we’re going to federal court to protect the religious liberty of churches.
As we allege in our complaint:
If Alive Church was a winery or brewery it could begin immediately meeting on its agriculturally-zoned Property, hold public gatherings for recreational, entertainment, or educational purposes, and even build buildings for public gatherings without being required to have a building permit or associated land improvements such as turn-lanes, curbs and guttering, or stormwater management.
. . .
The Defendant, through its Zoning Ordinance, both on its face and as applied, is treating Alive Church differently and less favorably than secular assemblies or institutions such as wineries or breweries.
Wineries and breweries can host weddings. They can host live music. They can host community-engaging events and gatherings. They can even rent their facilities to churches to use. All while enjoying the beneficial treatment of the county’s favor and avoiding cumbersome and expensive zoning and permit requirements. But not churches.
The bottom line is the county is treating our client, the church, differently and worse – because it’s a church and has these religious beliefs about alcohol.
But federal statutes and the U.S. Constitution do not allow the county to do that, and that’s why we’re taking it to court. We must stand up for churches’ rights in this country.
It’s a small church and it’s a big county. It’s David and Goliath.
Among everything else we’re engaging in daily – all the national cases and issues, all the international cases and issues – we’re also stepping up for a church in federal court – a church that just wants to be treated by the government the same way the government treats other businesses.
We filed a lawsuit in federal court to defend the church’s rights to worship and hold services on its own property. But Prince William County – one of the largest and wealthiest in the nation – tried to get the case thrown out rather than attempt to defend its egregious violation of religious liberty.
However they refused to comply with the court’s rules to do so, and just hours before we were set to file our response, the court just struck their brief and ordered them to refile it in compliance with the rules. When they do, we will be ready to defend the church’s right to worship without some ridiculous liquor license.
For more than 30 years, the ACLJ has successfully defended religious liberty all the way to the Supreme Court, and we’re prepared to do it again.