Church sues City of Palatka over discrimination

PALATKA, Fla. -- Billy Graham got his start near Palatka. A mural in downtown Palatka honors the well-known preacher.

Now the city is dealing with an interesting religion issue.

A church wants to occupy an empty building on the main street. However, not everybody likes that idea, including those who aim to revitalize the downtown area.

Pastor Chad Perry and his wife are on a mission: to have a contemporary church on St. Johns Avenue.

"This is the place for our new church, River Community Church," Perry told First Coast News Tuesday as he looked around the inside of the building.

They are leasing the former McCrory's store on St. Johns Avenue which is essentially the main street of Palatka.

Perry pointed to a partially built platform on one side of the building and said, "You can see the stage we're working on. All that had to stop as a result of what's going on with the city."

Perry said he feels the City of Palatka has started to put the brakes on churches along St. Johns Avenue.

And so his church is suing the city, citing discrimination, among other things.

The city's planning and zoning board has created an overlay, or a plan to revitalize downtown, specifically this St. Johns Avenue.

"It would include the prohibition of churches from the river along St. Johns Avenue to the railroad tracks which encompasses about 11 blocks," Perry said.

Palatka Planning Director Thad Crowe explained the plan doesn't just block churches but offices, government entities and other institutions along the street as a way of "supporting uses that promote vitality."

Crowe said the city and other planners want to see more retail along the street.

Mary Rhadigan owns an art store next to the new church in question. She doesn't want the church on St. Johns Avenue.

"It's not so much that it's a church," Rhadigan said. "It's that the building is not being used the way we hope it would be used. We want it to be retail of some kind."

However, the bingo hall next door is fine with the church. A bar down the street is fine with the church too, according to Perry.

Perry believes a church would not drive people away from the area, but pull people in "which would be good for our economic situation for people to see some shops here."

As for the construction delay inside the building, Crowe said the church did not get permits for some of the work, and that's why renovation has stopped. The planning director said it has nothing to do with it being a church.

But Perry believes there's a bigger issue here: discrimination against churches. He has filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Palatka. The suit states: the city's zoning regulations and alcoholic beverages ordinance violates the "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, its First Amendment rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech, its 14th Amendment to due process and equal protection of the law and its right to free exercise of religion under the Florida Statutes."

"To say we don't want churches to be a part of the revitalization of downtown Palatka sends a strong message to the Christian community that something is up on their agenda … that may not be good," Perry said.

----To connect with Jessica Clark, follow her on Twitter at @JessicaFCN or Like her on Facebook.


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