A small African-American church is accusing the town of Pantego of racial and religious bias for denying a permit to hold services in a strip shopping center.
Attorneys for Now Faith Deliverance Temple sued in Tarrant County civil court last week after the Town Council voted Dec. 14 against giving the church a permit to continue meeting at 3216 West Park Row Drive.
The lawsuit accuses the council of having a history of denying similar applications to religious groups whose members consist of racial or religious minorities, including a mosque that recently wanted to locate nearby.
Sylvester Lafayette, who calls himself the apostle of the 75-member, nondenominational church, said he was astonished by the reaction his congregation received from city leaders and their neighbors. His wife, Dora, is the pastor. He said the church was served an eviction notice on Dec. 23, two days before Christmas.
I can’t understand all the hatred and the malice,
Sylvester Lafayette, apostle at Now Faith Deliverance Temple
“Some of the members are baffled. This is crazy,” Lafayette said. “This has taken me aback. I can’t understand all the hatred and the malice.”
Mayor Melody Paradise and City Manager Matthew Fielder declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
Frank Hill, the attorney representing Now Faith, said the city can’t deny a church a permit unless it can show that it poses a danger to the health and safety of the community. He said the city came up with a questionable list of concerns about the application in denying Now Faith’s permit.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the city and states that Pantego continues to “discriminate against the church because of their religion by refusing to allow them access to public forums to exercise their religion.”
“It’s a bad situation,” Hill said. “We want them to be left alone to use the premises as a church, as they have been doing.”
Holy Ghost Highway
Now Faith moved to the nearly 10,000-square-foot Park Row site in July after operating in several locations in Arlington, including the Hugh Smith Recreation Center on the city’s east side, according to Lafayette and court documents.
On its website, the church asks individuals to “Come and Run on the Holy Ghost Highway.” It has services at 10:30 a.m. Sundays, a prayer service and Bible study at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays. An evangelical service is at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, and a prayer session at 9 a.m. Saturdays.
The church is across the street from the former Trinity United Methodist Church and Woodland West Church of Christ, both in Arlington. The Methodist church had offices in the complex before it sold the church and moved to a site a few miles to the west.
After being at the new location for some time, Lafayette said, the city told the church it needed a special use permit. While Lafayette thought the landlord already had that permission, he said, the church filed the necessary paperwork with the city by October.
We want them to be left alone to use the premises as a church, as they have been doing,
Frank Hill, the Arlington attorney representing the church
He also said that city officials told them they had received complaints from the neighbors about the church’s members “being too loud” and that the kids had been playing outside at night.
“I was shocked when I heard they had complaints,” Lafayette said.
On Dec. 7, the Pantego Planning and Zoning Commission, on a 4-1 vote, approved Now Faith’s permit application. But a week later the council denied the application. During that meeting, the church was told that its application was incomplete, Hill said.
After a long discussion in which a lot of questions were asked about building conditions and such things as the number of fire extinguishers, Hill said, a motion was made to table the item until problems with the permit could be addressed. But that motion failed, he said.
The minutes from the planning and zoning hearing, and the council meeting, are not available on the city’s website.
Power to change their mind
When Mohammed Antwi heard what happened to Now Faith, he wasn’t surprised.
In November, a mosque that wanted to locate next door at 3214 West Park Row Drive ran into the same sort of opposition from the city. Antwi, president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of Fort Worth, said the mosque was going to buy the building if its permit was approved.
But the zoning commission voted against the idea and the council narrowly rejected the application after concerns were expressed about parking, traffic, noise, trash and how it might harm the valuation of nearby homes. One resident told the council that “he wouldn’t want to see his church move in here.”
Residents during the commission meeting also mentioned their problems with Now Faith. One person mentioned a 9-year-old boy climbing an 8-foot fence at 10:30 p.m. to retrieve a football.
Antwi asked that they not be judged by problems people had with Now Faith.
“We told them that they should not judge us based on the black church. We said, ‘Give us the opportunity [to] change the community and to be friendly to the community,” Antwi said.
City officials denied the mosque’s occupancy permit after concerns were expressed by residents about traffic, noise, hours of operation, and too many similar operations in the area. Homeowners were also concerned about drops in their home value.
Antwi, a physician’s assistant who immigrated from Ghana in 1992, said he’s not buying the explanation for why the application was denied, although he doesn’t plan to fight it.
“Everybody in the room was white and we were the only people who were not white,” Antwi said. “I can’t prove it but we felt it. … There was nobody there to speak for us. We didn’t have any power to change their mind.
Lafayette said his church was preparing to have a revival Friday night, and that it didn’t have any immediate plans to move out of the building. But he said that Pantego police had already visited the church twice that week. One day someone complained — again — about the noise.
“Two policemen in one week. Lord have mercy,” Lafayette said. “I don’t understand why we keep having to be ridiculed like this. … It’s a trip.”