Church sues Sarasota County, claims zoning laws discriminate against faith-based schools

Published: Mar. 28, 2019 at 1:37 PM EDT
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ENGLEWOOD (WTSP) - A church in Englewood is suing Sarasota County, claiming the county's zoning laws discriminate against faith-based schools.

Six years ago, Englewood Church - The Nazarene opened Englewood Christian School on West Green Street for students with learning disabilities. Three years later, the church administration says it learned that it would need a special zoning exemption from the county to operate a school with more than 25 students. The school's enrollment is already twice that.

The school has spent two years and $10,000 applying for the exemption, asking the county to allow up to 90 students. Last November, the county denied the exemption and is fining the church $250 per day, totaling around $40,000.

Christiana Holcomb, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, is helping the church sue the county. She says, "Secular charter schools are allowed to locate in that zone without a special permit. What the county has done here clearly violates federal law. The government can’t treat religious schools worse than it treats secular groups. That’s what Sarasota County has done in this case."

Sarasota County said it could not comment on a matter under litigation. WTSP reached out to the county to learn if a charter school would also need a special zoning exemption, but has not heard back.

Meanwhile, the church is moving forward with plans to expand the school. The pastor said they are in the process of buying an 11,000-square foot building to use as the new school, but they would continue to use the location on West Green Street for younger students, such as kindergartners.

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