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Federal court sides with Holly Springs church

By Tony Martin

Associate Editor, The Baptist Record

Story originally published in The Baptist Record on May 16, 2013

Holly Springs native Telsa DeBerry has a vision for an urban ministry in his hometown, but it seems the city’s administration – even his uncle, the mayor – is determined to prevent that from happening. The City of Holly Springs has even gone as far as saddling the Opulent Life Church with requirements that apply only to churches.

Telsa and the congregation were at a crossroads. Despite their best efforts to reason with the city over its unfair treatment, they believed more and more obstacles were being thrown in their path.

Final Part of a Two-Part Series

“We retained the services of Liberty Institute, an organization that takes on causes dealing with religious freedom. Hiram Sasser, their director of litigation, took on the case. He was shocked that this was happening and he came down, surveyed the situation, and took on the cause pro bono.

“Sasser sent the city a letter, and we thought that when the city was notified that the ordinance was in conflict with federal law [The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act –RLUIPA], that would take care of it. We were trying to avert any kind of legal proceedings, but the city wouldn’t change course.

“The city was obstinate, so we had to file suit in federal court,” DeBerry continues. “The district court in Oxford ruled in favor of the city – interestingly enough, without even hearing the city’s argument. The city had seven days to file their brief, but instead the judge ruled against us. That had nothing to do with our rights. If I’m one person, don’t I have the right to exist? We had 18 – 20 people meeting regularly in a space that could hold 40, and they said that our rights weren’t being violated.

“Next, our lawyers filed with the Fifth Circuit,” DeBerry says. “The Fifth Circuit ruled in the church’s favor in August 2012, but the night before the Fifth Circuit hearing the city revamped the ordinance and took that verbiage out. We had secured a location on the city square, but then the city’s ordinance covered the whole city. Now, after changing the wording, the new ordinance said categorically that there were to be no churches on the town square. The new ordinance went directly against us.

“This had been dragging on for over a year,” DeBerry continues. “The court saw through this ploy. The Fifth Circuit didn’t want to rule on this new ordinance until the lower court ruled. It was remanded back to the lower court in the fall of 2012. The judge was upset with our lawyers that we didn’t come to the lower court first and refile in his court. This next time around, he ruled in favor of us at a hearing.

“The city didn’t present much of anything. We were headed toward a trial date in April of 2013, but our lawyers were able to reach a settlement with the city, in which they were to have to reimburse the church and the legal team for expenses.”

Even though the city has technically lost the case, there are still hurdles. “We are still meeting in the Marshall Baptist Center,” DeBerry said. “Legally, the city can’t stop us [from meeting downtown]. Now, however, they are saying we have to meet the fire code. We’re to have a sprinkler system installed in this building. That’s a $35,000 investment in a building we are only leasing for five years.

“The city says they’re using the 2006 International Fire Code standard. Based on this standard, we are considered an assembly, and if our occupancy is over 300 people, we have to have a sprinkler system. They base this on square footage.

“There are three ways to figure the occupancy of this space. Based on our building usage, with chairs and tables and so forth, our occupancy will only be about 279 people. But their numbers, based on their perception of our use, comes out to 407 people. They are negating the very policy they shared with us. Our lawyers have sent them a letter to that effect, and that’s where we are today.

“Spiritually, the biggest obstacle and the biggest hurdle I deal with here is simply ‘religion,’ people who go to church and are going to hell along with it. Religion is the biggest obstacle in being in a right relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ,” he asserts.

Johnny Ervin, director of church planting for the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board in Jackson, said the convention has provided funding for Opulent Life Church through the Margaret Lackey State Mission Offering.

“Several months ago, I spent some time with Telsa in Holly Springs. It was during our trip around town that I began to grasp the depth of his concern for his home town as well as his unwavering principles.

“I knew the story of him not being afraid to take on the community’s leaders even though it might not go well for him. Listening to the reason why he felt compelled to stand up for the church – because his community would never prosper with the laws against the church that were on the books – gave me a new appreciation of what courage looks like in our culture today.

“Telsa is not afraid to do what God leads him to do. I am so thankful that God provides leaders like Telsa DeBerry with the faith to stand firm for Jesus and His Church in a culture that has moved so far from God we have trouble believing this is America.”

Neither Holly Springs Mayor Andre DeBerry nor the city’s five members of the Board of Aldermen responsed to individual e-mail requests from The Baptist Record seeking comment on the Opulent Life Church case.

For now, Opulent Life Church and its pastor are committed to fighting for the vision that God has given them. Like the Apostles Peter and John as they faced the all-powerful officials of their day, DeBerry believes he and the church answer to a higher authority (Acts 5:27-29).

Stay tuned. It’s going to get interesting.

Editor’s note: Telsa DeBerry can be contacted at opulentlifepastor@gmail.com.