A church operating out of the Lee County Republican Party’s downtown Sanford headquarters has been told by city planning officials that it’s in violation of an ordinance which forbids storefront churches in the central business district and needs to move elsewhere.
Shawn Williams, a former chairman of the Lee County Board of Education and the lead pastor at God’s Promise Church has said in response that he plans to consult with attorneys and challenge the ordinance under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
God’s Promise lists 101 S. Steele St. as a “temporary location” on its website. Prior to its location there, the church had met at the old Chef Paul’s location at 610 Main St. Williams, who is also the board president of the to-be-constructed MINA’s Place charter school in the old Kendale Shopping Center, has said the church will move into the multi-purpose room at the school when it is built.
Still, the church sharing space with the GOP is curious, as Williams – who served on the school board as a Democrat until 2012 and ran again in 2014 – has butted heads in public on multiple occasions with several members of the Lee County Republican Party, including Chairman Jim Womack.
“How can a local pastor support not praying in a public setting, and then hold partisan political rallies at his church? How can that same pastor (along with two others) solicit and receive millions of dollars in federal and state grant funding for after-school programs hosted in their church buildings (when our own secular Boys and Girls Club was discouraged from applying for those same grants)?” wrote an anonymous poster using the pseudonym “Thomas Jefferson” in 2012 on the now-defunct Founding Fathers Political Blog, which was outed as an outlet for Womack and others by the Independent Weekly the following year.
That post and others generated multiple back-and-forth comments between Williams and several pseudonymous posters, at least one of which is now known to have been Womack, who accused Williams of a “dirty deed” and asked if he was “insane.”
“We needed a place to worship, and there was a listing agent who told us the space was available,” Williams said when asked how the situation came about. He declined to provide any comment on the zoning matter with the city, noting only that he hadn’t yet been able to fully describe the situation to the church’s leadership. “We are separate from what (the GOP) are doing.”
The Lee GOP’s headquarters has been a source of controversy in recent months, with the county’s Democrats filing a complaint alleging the part accepted illegal in-kind donations from the building’s owner in the form of discounted rent. While Womack told The Sanford Herald that the accusation was “specious,” a review of campaign finance documents show the GOP making only 30 rent payments on the building over a 72 month period. Williams said God’s Promise Church makes rent payments to the building’s owner, and not the Lee GOP.