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Church's race bias claim goes to court

West Mifflin officials angrily deny discriminating against black congregation

Saturday, November 16, 2002

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A white church operated for two years at 612 Coal Road in West Mifflin before dissolving because of a financial scandal.

When a black church tried to buy the building and move into the neighborhood, it claims it met government roadblocks for a simple reason -- racial discrimination.

Second Baptist Church of Homestead turned its complaint into a federal case yesterday, arguing in U.S. District Court that West Mifflin's government maneuvered to keep its predominantly black congregation out of the building.

"While a white membership had the church, nobody said anything. Then an Afro-American membership wanted to come in and there were zoning problems. If that doesn't look like discrimination, I don't know what is," said the Rev. Donald Turner, pastor of Second Baptist.

West Mifflin lawyers seethed at the allegation of racism, saying legitimate zoning concerns about the church and a day care center that also operates in the same building were raised but never answered. The neighborhood is zoned for residences.

The congregation and its American Civil Liberties Union lawyers cried racism and went to court without bothering to exhaust their zoning hearings, said Michael Adams, the zoning board's lawyer.

"It's offensive that they've slandered the borough" and Dennis Butler, the borough's zoning officer, Adams said after the case was recessed for the weekend. "There was no religious or racial motivations in this case."

Second Baptist Church has offered $950,000 to buy the building and about five acres that housed Grace Christian Ministries. That would be enough to pay off the mortgage, taxes and liens that piled up before Grace Christian Ministries' congregation disintegrated in 2000.

It also would leave between $350,000 and $400,000 to pay restitution to 34 people who lost money in an investment scheme run by Grace Christian Ministries' former pastor, Michael Altman. He is serving a four-year sentence in state prison as a result of the scam.

Turner said Second Baptist Church intends to move its operations from Homestead to West Mifflin if the sale goes through.

He testified that a day care center already operating in the church would be able to stay as a tenant -- an arrangement proposed by the judge who presided in Altman's criminal case.

Turner said his church is cramped at its existing location, unable to handle weddings and fellowship events. The West Mifflin site would enable the church to blossom and better serve its 350 members, he said.

Lawyers with the ACLU are seeking an injunction ordering West Mifflin to issue Second Baptist an occupancy permit for the building.

Testimony resumes at 1 p.m. Monday before U.S. District Judge David Cercone.

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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