Southern Baptist group sues DeKalb city over plans for mega-complex

A fight in a small town over a big church could be heading to court.

Prolonging a yearlong saga, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention sued the city of Clarkston last week over the church’s plans to demolish two homes and build a $15 million complex and ministry center.

The lawsuit, filed in the Superior Court of DeKalb County, charges that the city unlawfully halted the proposed development by not approving a demolition permit from the North American Mission Board, which is an entity of the Southern Baptists.

The NAMB already owns the old Clarkston International Bible Church, and had plans to build a massive new campus spread out across almost four blocks, complete with missionary housing, a training hub, a gym, a playground, a pavilion, parking lots and soccer fields.

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The project would involve tearing down two houses that the church purchased near downtown Clarkston, just half a mile outside of the Perimeter. News of the plans was met with frustration from some residents, who said they wanted to keep the two old homes standing and charged that the church had not properly communicated with neighbors.

“It adds charm to that residential area. That house provides character to the community,” Clarkston resident Beverly Burks said, specifically referring to an old blue house on Hill Street. She said the “historic farm house” was built in the 1900s. “The trees alone on that land are a natural forest in that area.”

Some people — especially members of the Muslim community — were also worried the Baptist mission center might seek to convert residents of other faiths to Christianity, Burks said. 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.

The NAMB had gotten some permits approved for the new complex earlier this year. On April 26, the church applied for demolition permits for the two old homes, according to the lawsuit. Days later, the city passed a six-month moratorium on demolition in the “Potential Historic District,” which included the prospective development.

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.

But the church claims the city acted retroactively when it denied the demolition permit, since it was filed before the moratorium was passed.

“For unknown reasons, the Clarkston City Council passed a moratorium blocking NAMB from obtaining the permits needed for this development just days after applications for those permits were filed,” Jake Evans, an attorney for the church, said in a statement. “NAMB sought for months to resolve Clarkston’s improper acts, but now, NAMB must seek court intervention to enforce and protect its constitutional rights.”

The city declined to comment on the lawsuit.

In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article last year, Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry was generally in support of the project.

“People say the Southern Baptist Convention is bigots, racists, anti-gay. I understand that feeling,” he said previously. But Terry called the religious organization handling the effort, a group called Send Relief, “the more charitable, open-minded wing of the Baptist tent.”

Terry, who is running for U.S. Senate in 2020, declined to comment on the lawsuit from NAMB.

Burks, a former City Council member, remains frustrated by what she described as a lack of communication from the Baptist group over their plans.

“The church really needs to continue to work with the community and rebuild a level of trust that was damaged by this whole process,” she said.

The lawsuit asks for a court to order Clarkston to issue the demolition permits, and declare that the moratorium is unconstitutional. It also seeks damages and fees, and asks for an expedited decision.

Meanwhile, construction at the future NAMB complex is continuing on one side of the lot, where building permits had been approved and no demolitions were required.

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