By Richard Sullins |

Following a public hearing that lasted for more than 90 minutes, the Sanford City Council decided Tuesday that a question of whether new churches should be allowed to locate in nine blocks of downtown Sanford should be studied further to allow more time for the issue to be explored by all stakeholders.

The matter had been raised not because a new religious organization had requested approval to locate in downtown Sanford or Jonesboro, but because Council Member Charles Taylor didn’t want “Sanford to be open for business but be closed for God.”

One of the largest crowds in recent memory – about 150 people – filled the council chambers, many representing conservative churches and expecting a decision to be made that night. But Mayor Chet Mann made it clear that the gathering was a public hearing only and that the issue would be heard by the Planning Board next before returning to the council.

“I want to make it clear to everyone that a show of force tonight does not force our hand,” he said.

In fact, Taylor was the only member of the council present who seemed ready for a vote. The remaining five plus the mayor reached a consensus to get data and hard information instead of being swayed by the emotions of the crowd.

The budget resolution adopted by the council last spring included a provision for increased enforcement of city ordinances. Taylor said Downtown Sanford Inc. (DSI) reached out to him about ordinance enforcement and that in that spirit, he took it upon himself to review all the laws on the city’s books to see if there were some that might need to be removed.

Taylor said he came across an ordinance adopted in 1999 that had allowed existing churches to stay in the nine block area considered to make up downtown, while new churches would be required to locate in other parts of the city.

According to closed session minutes of a City Council meeting held on May 3, the 1999 ordinance was enacted after issues had arisen in both Sanford and Jonesboro inflamed a small number of people who marched around City Hall and “chanted in the hallways while the meeting was going on.”

The council at the time reached a compromise that churches within the central business district could stay but new ones would have to locate elsewhere.

A federal law passed the following year, the Religious Land Use Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) held churches and religious organizations couldn’t be held to a different standard than other groups when it came to the use of land. Courts later upheld the law, saying cities and towns couldn’t put more substantial burdens on churches because citizens had the rights to assemble and worship as they see fit. RLUIPA does contain a “safe harbor” provision allowing governments to “avoid the preemptive force of any provision … by changing the policy or practice that results in a substantial burden on religious exercise.”

Although the 1999 ordinance is still on the books, city staff have chosen not to enforce it because of the difficult position it puts them into because the language is not specific as to its enforcement mechanisms.

Ready to do battle

Bob Joyce of the DSI Board of Directors was the only public speaker to recommend further study. Joyce said the board “wants everyone to be good neighbors of each other and help downtown to prosper.”

He pointed to the revitalization that has taken place downtown during the past 20 years with the near doubling of property values to almost $70 million. Only one empty retail space exists at present and retail sales have bounced back to their pre-COVID levels among downtown shops.

Joyce brought up Molly Stuart, an attorney with Morningstar Law Group in Raleigh, who has been a consulting lawyer on similar cases for years. Stuart believed the board could build a solid legal case on which to stand, should it choose to do so. Stuart said there was no need to rush into action on the issue and recommended taking time to involve stakeholders and to study best practices from across the country.

But Pastor Dale Sauls of Life Springs Church in Sanford suggested his and other churches “have sought preliminary legal counsel and (the existing ordinance) does appear to be discriminatory. They have indicated they would like to move forward, but we love this city. We don’t want to do that.”

Instead, Sauls said his church “prayed for this day and we’ve done prayer walks through the downtown on this issue, although we haven’t always been received with welcoming arms.”

Another speaker, Angela Cook, also intimated at legal action.

“A lawsuit would be an ugly thing to see by people looking to come here,” she said. “Remove this ordinance and let justice stand. Let it stand, and you will have hell on your hands.”

Lisa Ragan, who was recently unsuccessfully nominated as a Central Carolina Community College trustee by two Republican members of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, suggested a different course of legal action.

“If you break your oath of office, you would (sic) break your surety bonds,” she said. “Ministers might be forced to make a complaint against them.”

Surety bonds guarantee a public official will carry out the duties of their office honestly and faithfully. While they are required of most federal and state officials, claims made against surety bonds have risen over the past two years as a result of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The claims that have been filed during that period were generally by right-wing groups against school board members but because the process can be a very lengthy one, there is virtually no data by which to judge their potential for effectiveness.

Working toward a solution?

The meeting had two distinct feels. One was that of a city’s elected governing body attempting to craft public policy that all could live with. The other was a religious rally of mostly married couples, some of whom brought their Bibles. Several speakers from this second group quoted or read from lengthy Scripture passages they used in molding their point of view.

Nina Tomlinson believed the council was planning to kick churches out of downtown and drew applause and cheers when she said that she was only 17. That same response appeared later in her remarks after she said “you want to take out churches, but you want to leave demonic places like Hugger Mugger. There’s a lot of witchcraft going over there. But you guys haven’t spoken about that.”

But there were some who used their time to express a willingness to work with those having different points of view to forge a common solution. Pastor Greg Davenport of the local Assemblies of God church believes there will only be one or two churches who will seek to locate downtown over the next five to seven years.

“I urge you to be gracious to them,” he said. “They will be grateful to you, and the good will afforded to them will come back to you many times over.”

Davenport said keeping the ordinance on the books, along with a decision by council to enforce it, “would make God and his church second-class citizens.”

The speakers were exclusively Christian, and none addressed how they might feel if members of some other faith were to request space in a downtown storefront.

Mann clears the air

As Mann opened the floor for council members to share their thoughts after hearing from the public, a consensus began to emerge to allow the issue to proceed through the process that other changes to ordinances must follow and there was a strong sense among the majority that more information was needed in order to make the best decision possible.

Council Member Chas Post, a Sanford attorney, made an impassioned plea for finding the facts and being prepared.

“Every day when I step into the courtroom, I am the most prepared person there. If not, me and my client get bitten in the rear,” he said. “Preparation is important. We need to do our due diligence on this, like we do on everything else, so that we don’t get bitten in the rear. We are all important, we are all one people, and we need to take more time to study the best way to move forward.”

Council Members Sam Gaskins and Rebecca Salmon, along with Mayor Pro Tempore Byron Buckels, agreed with Post’s call for following the process. But Taylor took his time to outline what he had done with the issue and how he felt that his argument to remove the ordinance was falling on deaf ears.

He also struck back at Downtown Sanford Inc., saying “this has been a gross overreach by DSI, who is not an enforcement mechanism. They are not here to enforce laws, bylaws, or statutes.”

In a statement provided to The Rant after the meeting, DSI responded to Taylor’s charge.

“Our mission is to champion downtown through promotions, design, organization and economic vitality – which helps foster smart growth,” it read. “When it comes to changes that could affect small businesses in the municipal service district, we feel it is prudent to work with the city, local stakeholders as well as concerned citizens to move forward in a way that allows us all to be good neighbors.”

Mann brought the public hearing to a close after an hour and a half, but not before seeking to clear the air about any incorrect assumptions about the nature of the City Council and its intentions.

“I am a baptized Christian, and we have a duty to be fair and equal to everyone,” he said. “And if you think for one minute that my faith is any different than yours, then you are misjudging me. But if I thought for one second that there wasn’t a place to worship in this city, that you could only do it in nine blocks, I would have called this council to pass an ordinance to open up the downtown to any church that could get there. But that’s not the case. I don’t understand why the issue came up because we really didn’t have an issue. One was created and came before us tonight that could potentially gin people up to be pitted against one other, but that’s not what we want to do. This is hard work, but I want you to understand that this council has to represent multiple interests and points of view. That includes downtown, where we have made a $9 million investment. And there are people there who have invested their life savings in their businesses, and we have to be careful that we don’t harm or injure them.”

DSI, whose mission is to support businesses in the downtown area, was optimistic that the council’s choice to stick to its processes for considering issues before making changes, is the right one.

“We are pleased with council’s actions last night because it gives us the opportunity to work with downtown businesses and the faith community to craft an ordinance that supports small business while at the same time recognizes the importance of faith-based organizations in downtown and throughout all areas of Sanford,” the statement said.

The issue now goes to the city’s Planning Board for due diligence work and will return to the council at some future point when that work is completed.