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South Neighborhoods
Racism stalls sale, church claims

Tuesday, October 29, 2002

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Attorneys representing a predominantly black Homestead church that has been stymied by the West Mifflin zoning board from buying the empty Grace Christian Ministries property filed a civil rights lawsuit against the borough in federal court yesterday, claiming racial and religious discrimination were behind the delay.

Pastor Donald P. Turner, left, talks with Witold Walczak, director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, yesterday in the sanctuary of The Second Baptist Church of Homestead. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

The suit was filed for the Second Baptist Church of Homestead by the American Civil Liberties Union. The church has been trying to buy the six-acre property and 11,000-square-foot building at 612 Coal Road since spring.

Witold Walczak, director of the Pittsburgh ACLU and one of the Homestead church's lawyers, said at a press conference yesterday at Second Baptist Church that "the problem of discrimination against small or minority or unpopular churches ... has been a big one in this country."

He said the suit was based on the borough's violation of the Homestead church's First and 14th Amendment rights, and a law passed by Congress in 2000 designed to prevent discrimination against churches by local land-use boards.

In addition to the borough, the suit named Dennis Butler, the borough's building inspector, as a defendant.

"We have run into a lot of resistance from West Mifflin Borough," said Russell M. Freeman, a deacon at Second Baptist Church who is one of the suit's plaintiffs.

"Why that is, I just don't know. They just don't want us on that property."

Donald Fetzko, the borough's solicitor, disputed that the issue was one of race or religion.

He said the Homestead church hasn't followed the correct procedural steps in order to obtain an occupancy permit. Such a permit is required even for a church, Fetzko said, because the property is in a residential district.

"I disagree vehemently with both their case law and what they're alleging because it's just not true," Fetzko said.

Michael Adams, the zoning board's attorney, said the borough has until Nov. 6 to file motions in the case before U.S. District Court Judge David Cercone.

Adams said he will seek to have the suit dismissed.

"People ought to be very careful about making careless and reckless allegations," he said. "This is a zoning case, and unfortunately, it's been politicized."

The $950,000 price tag for the property and 11,000-square-foot building will be used to satisfy about a half-million dollars in taxes, liens, mortgages and fees.

In addition, about $460,000 will be paid to 34 investors who lost money in an investment scheme run by Grace Christian Ministries' former pastor, Michael Altman, who is now serving a 4-year sentence in state prison.

Second Baptist Church officials have said the church has outgrown its present space in Homestead.

Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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