Judge rules against Clarkston in Southern Baptist group’s lawsuit

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A DeKalb judge ruled the city of Clarkston must allow an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention to demolish two homes in order to build a multimillion-dollar complex and ministry center.

The North American Mission Board owns the old Clarkston International Bible Church in the small DeKalb city known for its diverse and largely international population. The Alpharetta-based ministry plans to build a massive new campus spread out across almost four blocks in Clarkston, complete with missionary housing, a training hub, a gym, a playground, a pavilion, parking lots and soccer fields.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

A lawsuit filed in September in the Superior Court of DeKalb County accused the city of unlawfully halting the proposed development by not approving a demolition permit for two houses the church purchased near downtown Clarkston, located just half a mile outside of the Perimeter. Many residents and officials said they wanted the historic homes to be protected.

Some were also worried the Baptist mission center might seek to convert residents of other faiths to Christianity. A city of just 12,800 people, Clarkston is known as the “most ethnically diverse square mile in America,” and more than half of its residents are foreign-born, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated.

According to its website, the NAMB does charity work and mobilizes Southern Baptists “as a missional force to impact North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church planting.” In the lawsuit, the church said it sought to build the new campus in Clarkston because of the city’s large refugee and low-income population.

Judge Tangela Barrie sided with the NAMB on Saturday, ordering the city to process the demolition permits for the two homes. The judge also declared that a moratorium on demolitions passed in April is unconstitutional.

On April 26, the church applied for demolition permits for the two old homes on Rowland Street and Hill Street, according to the lawsuit. Days later, the City Council passed a six-month moratorium on demolition in the “Potential Historic District,” which included the prospective development, subsequently denying the demolition request.

The city created a historic preservation commission earlier this year, and was in the process of appointing members to the group, the moratorium stated. Several blocks of downtown Clarkston were marked as places that could become a historic preservation district, and many residents and officials said they wanted the historic homes to be protected.

Barrie ruled the city acted retroactively, since the moratorium was passed after NAMB submitted its application.

“This is a big victory, both legally and practically for NAMB to continue its mission of making a positive difference in the community,” Jake Evans, an attorney representing the church, said in a statement. “The court rightly found that Clarkston unconstitutionally took NAMB’s rights.”

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Mayor Ted Terry could not comment directly on the lawsuit, since Clarkston recently elected two new members to the City Council, which plans to meet and discuss the NAMB issue in January. He said the city may appeal the ruling, which could take three to six more months to resolve. If Barrie’s decision stands, NAMB plans to seek damages and attorneys fees from the city.

Terry, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2020, said the church’s plans have divided the small city. Despite residents’ concerns about the church’s connections to the Southern Baptists, he said it is “not the role of governments to say whether it’s OK or not OK for one religion to practice their religion. We just can’t go down that line.”

He said the city has spent $50,000 defending itself from the lawsuit, funds that “could’ve been spent on community projects, it could’ve been saved for the rainy day fund.”

Construction at the future NAMB complex has started on the north side of the lot, where building permits had been approved and no demolitions were required.

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