Church sues city

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 9, 2004

Selma attorney John W. Kelly III filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Mobile last week on behalf of the First Baptist Church against the City of Selma.

The suit is response to the denial of the church’s request to tear down the old YMCA building to put up a parking lot.

“The building is unsightly, decrepit, it is infested with termites and it is unsafe,” Kelly said. “The church has no use for it.

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They have a serious need for parking.”

The suit came about after the Selma Historic Development Commission voted unanimously to deny the church’s request in early May. Selma’s historic ordinance requires the commission’s approval to make changes to a building in the historic district, which includes the YMCA.

The church had the right to file an appeal or take it to federal court.

Kelly says the suit is based on a federal statute that states state or local governments cannot impose land restrictions that burden religious freedom without compelling governmental interest.

“Our contention is the city does not have a compelling governmental interest,” Kelly said. Kelly added that the church has a similar cause of action under state law.

Elton Ralston, who was appointed last year to the church’s committee to decide what to do with the building, said he believes the church’s position is strong.

“We just think that the Historic Commission Act just leaves a lot of unanswered constitutional questions, and that’s the basis for this lawsuit,” he said. “We didn’t come to (the decision to sue) lightly, but this issue has been addressed on a state level and a national level.

There is a national federal act that says the burden of proof is on the governmental agency.”

Several Selma City officials were unable to discuss the suit because they have not yet been served with the suit.

Kelly said he expects that process to be finished by Monday.

The YMCA building was built around 1887. It’s designed in the Second Empire style and once featured a central, Mansard-roofed tower and two smaller towers on each side. However, it has fallen into a state of complete disrepair.

Still, members of the Selma Historical Preservation Society feel it is key to preserve the building and others as part of Selma’s historical charm.

“We’re very unhappy.

We hoped we could get it worked out,” society member Tim Bjelke said. “It would just be a travesty to lose half that block.”

Bjelke added that he didn’t feel like the majority of the churches’ members wanted the building down.

“I just feel like there’s a small group of people in the church ram-rodding this through,” he said. “Yeah the building’s in bad shape but that’s no excuse for losing something valuable. The St. James was in terrible shape and the whole community pulled together and saved it.”

In the end, Kelly says the reasons for saving the building aren’t enough to override the churches need to pull it down.

“They talk about aesthetic value and tourism but they are not compelling governmental issues,” Kelly said. “The church has elderly and disadvantaged people and the parking on Sunday is just atrocious.”

Bjelke doesn’t think tearing down the building would solve the problem.

“They wouldn’t get that many parking spaces

Selma City Attorney Jimmy Nunn was apparently out of the office and unable to comment on the case.