Church sues Fairfax board over zoning law

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Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland

A Vienna-based church congregation claims in a lawsuit filed against the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors that a zoning ordinance is restraining its free speech rights and places a burden on its free exercise of religion.

The complaint stems from a ruling by a county zoning official that said the Church of the Good Shepherd-United Methodist's newly erected, $37,000 sign was in violation of an ordinance that allows "any movable copy sign ... to change messages a maximum of two times within a 24-hour period."

A letter to the church cited three messages that occurred in a one-day period: "WELCOME, Come on in and beat the heat...," "Also visit us at goodshepherdva.com" and "Practicing the Presence Thurs., July 5, 1 p.m."

Consequently, a second code violation was also cited, saying that because the sign changes messages three times, it was not permitted in the county.

The church was given two choices: permanently remove the sign or limit the number of messages it shows to two or fewer per day.

At the request of church members, representatives from both parties met at the church on July 30 to discuss the violations, the lawsuit says, but "were unable to resolve the matter."

In response, church members filed a lawsuit that claims the Fairfax County zoning ordinance violates their free speech and free religion rights. The lawsuit also notes that the ordinance exempts some signs, including those showing the time, temperature, weather or environmental conditions.

The church members also say the county is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which gives religious institutions a way to avoid certain zoning law restrictions.

"Under the County's restrictive policy, the Church must pick and choose which of its various functions can be displayed on its sign each day," the lawsuit says. "Such an impact is a substantial burden on the Church's religious exercise."

Church members are asking the court to rule that the county is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, award them an unspecified amount of monetary damages and award them "reasonable" attorney's fees and costs.

Board of Supervisors members declined to comment on the lawsuit, filed Aug. 18, because they have not yet met to discuss it as a group. Neither the church or its lawyer, Michael York, responded to The Washington Examiner's requests for comment.

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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