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Couple sues Sewickley Heights over order banning religious activities at farm

July 19, 2018 GMT

The owners of a historic farm in Sewickley Heights have been in a quiet, but lengthy battle over whether they’re allowed to host Bible studies and other religious events at the farm -- something the borough contends violates its zoning ordinance.

The Harrisburg-based Independence Law Center filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of Scott and Theresa Fetterolf alleging the borough’s attempts to keep them from using their farm for religious purposes violates their civil rights.

“The borough has no business overseeing a group of people reading and discussing a book together on private property -- even if that book is the Bible,” Randall Wenger, chief counsel for the Independence Law Center, said in a statement.

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The lawsuit said the 32-acre property has been used for such events by its prior owner “for many decades.”

That owner, Nancy Doyle Chalfant, one of the founders of the nonprofit Verland, “opened her home, and her beloved Dundee Farm, to church retreats, seminary picnics, youth groups and many other organizations she supported,” according to her 2012 obituary.

The Fetterolfs attended church with Chalfant and bought the property in 2003, Allegheny County real estate records show. According to the lawsuit, the Fetterolfs bought the property “to carry on the traditions started by Chalfant.”

They did so without incident until Oct. 5, 2017, when the borough served a notice of violation and cease and desist order on the Fetterolfs that said activities including a Bible study, worship night, religious retreats and fundraisers were not permitted in the borough’s historical rural and residential zone without a variance.

The Fetterolfs appealed to the borough’s zoning hearing board. Several meetings have been held since January, but the matter remains unresolved.

The Fetterolfs, their attorney in the zoning matter and borough officials have not commented publicly about the issue.

The federal lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting Sewickley Heights from enforcing the ordinance it says the Fetterolfs are violating because the ordinance violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, along with the Fetterolfs’ constitutional rights to freely exercise their religion, speech and assembly.

“Government should not target religious activities for punishment, particularly when similar secular activities are permitted,” Jeremy Samek, senior counsel for the Independence Law Center, said in a statement.

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The religious events on the property aren’t the “principal use” of the property, which is a working farm, according to the lawsuit.

“There is no compelling interest in prohibiting Bible studies, meetings where religious songs are sung, religious retreats/fellowship, and religious fundraisers, especially when secular counterparts of these activities are permitted,” the lawsuit said.

Sewickley Heights is a mostly residential community of about 800 that was established in 1935 as a haven for wealthy industrialists, who built estates along its rolling hills and bucolic meadows about 15 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

Borough officials are strong advocates of preserving the character of the area, as evidenced by its 2014 pattern book that lays out how changes to properties should take place.

Sewickley Heights solicitor Laura Stone of the Pittsburgh law firm Babst Calland didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment. The Fetterolfs didn’t respond to an email.

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