Church Sues Fairfax County To Keep Religion Classes

By Maria Glod        
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 18, 2006

McLean Bible Church, a Tysons Corner megachurch, has sued Fairfax County so it can continue to offer religion classes that officials say violate zoning rules.

In a 14-page suit filed July 3 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, the 10,000-member church says the classes are a regular part of church life, which is protected under the freedom of religion.

Fairfax officials say the church can't host the classes -- which can help students get a master's degree in theology or divinity at Lanham-based Capital Bible Seminary -- without county permission to operate as a college.

Colby M. May, a lawyer with the conservative American Center for Law and Justice, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the church, said fewer than 100 people are enrolled in the classes at any time. Some students seek academic credit, and others don't, he said.

"We're not a college or a university and don't have a desire to be a college or university. We're a church," May said. "These classes are to study the Bible and study the sacred writings and denominational views of the Christian faith. It's pretty routine for churches everywhere in America, and in Fairfax County, to have studies of the Bible."

Fairfax spokeswoman Debra Bianchi said county officials declined comment on the suit because it is pending in court. But she said the county plans to file a written response within 60 days.

McLean Bible Church, which sits on a 43-acre campus on Route 7, has long had a tense relationship with some nearby residents, who have complained that the complex -- which includes a bookstore, a 2,400-seat auditorium and a cafeteria -- is too large for the suburban neighborhood. Neighbors have said the church brings too much traffic to the area's clogged roads.

Last year, the McLean Citizens Association approved a resolution urging the county to uphold its decision to bar the classes.

"We're concerned about the potential for unlimited and uncontrolled growth of the school project," said Jim Robertson, an association member. "We don't object to a school. All we asked is that they limit the number of students and the times of the classes. The bottom line is traffic."

In the lawsuit, the church notes the "presence of vocal opposition to the church" and alleges that the zoning decision "appears to be based more upon political pressure than legal principal."

The classes are "just part of the Christian education program," said Stuart Mendelsohn, an attorney for the church who is also a former Fairfax County supervisor. "They are no different than other classes any church holds, and a church ought to be the one who decides that, not the government."

The dispute over the classes began in 2004, when Fairfax officials found that the church violated zoning rules by holding the classes. The church says the classes fall under a provision that allows use of the campus for "groups or activities which are sponsored by the church and consistent with its ministry objectives."

But county officials said the church needs permission to run a college. According to a March 2005 county report, zoning staff noted that Capital Bible Seminary had set up an office and library at the church and that the classes were "designed as part of a degree program which may lead to a graduate theological degree."

At that point, the county report said, 40 of 130 students attending the classes were "associated with the church."

McLean Bible appealed the ruling after limiting Capital Bible Seminary's presence by doing away with the seminary's office and library. According to the lawsuit, the church also offered to ensure that students would not be able to complete a degree solely by taking classes at the church. Fairfax denied the appeals.

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