Friday, May 12, 2006


Beford County, Virginia's Cowboy Church can't meet in a barn:
Garland Simmons was excited when the Cowboy Church began meeting at his place on Horseshoe Bend Road in late March.

It appears, however, that somebody did not share his enthusiasm. Simmons was notified by Bedford County officials that the Cowboy Church meetings violate county zoning regulations.

"I got the notice certified through the mail, Monday morning," Simmons said.

The notice consisted of two letters. One was from Gary McIver, the county's building official. McIver wrote that, by hosting the Cowboy Church on his property, Simmons is using it in a manner contrary to its agricultural (AR) zoning.

He also wrote that the building in which the Cowboy Church is being held, is defined as a farm building by the Virginia Uniform Statewide Building Code. The Cowboy Church constitutes a change of use for the building.

"We are all in agreement that this event is a worthy and admirable cause," McIver wrote.

However, he wrote that it is an unpermitted change of use for the property.

The other letter was from Lindsay Blankenship, a planner in the county's department of planning. It directs Simmons to "obtain the necessary permits for the establishment of a Religious Assembly" on the property by May 28.

"I don't think it's the county," commented Simmons. "It's somebody that is against religion or against me."

The church has rustled up some legal representation, and seem to make a valid point:
Meanwhile, the Liberty Counsel has contacted [church pastor Raymond] Bell. According to Liberty Counsel's Web site at, the organization offers free legal representation to people whose civil liberties have been denied. Bell said the organization called him Friday evening and he agreed to accept their offer of representation.

Bell said that the issue is whether or not we have government authorized churches. He feels the zoning restriction on churches puts the government in a position of authorizing, or not authorizing, a church.

According to Rena Lindevaldsen, the Liberty Counsel attorney representing the Cowboy Church, the zoning code in Bedford County is very broad. It could even impact things people do in their own home and a person hosting a home Bible study could be required to get a special use permit.

Lindevaldsen said that, because the code is overly broad, it violates the Cowboy Church's First Amendment rights, and also runs counter to a federal law, the Religious Land Uses and Institutional Persons Act. According to this law, local zoning can't impose a significant burden on a church's right to worship.

"If he was having a square dance, nobody would have bothered him," noted Lindevaldsen, who said that she has read Bedford County's zoning ordinance.

Maybe they should just schedule a square dance following services...

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