(Editor's note: The article posted here Wednesday, July 17, was in error. The City of Forest Park has not imposed a moratorium on churches, only on the ordinance regulating them. This is the corrected version. We apologize for the error and any inconvenience it may have caused.)
By Kathy Jefcoats
FOREST PARK — City Council members Monday night unanimously approved a 180-day moratorium on the enforcement of an ordinance regulating churches and other places of worship.
Planning, Building and Zoning Director Al Wiggins said his office became aware that some churches are not registering annually with the city as they are required to do under Section 8.8.39 of the Code of Ordinances.
"Now that we have it figured out, we have to treat them like new businesses," he said. "They have to hire a surveyor to make sure they are in compliance. They aren't grandfathered in under the ordinance."
The ordinance addresses not only churches and places of worship but anywhere large groups of people assemble, he said.
"The ordinance includes churches, libraries, stadiums and flea markets," Wiggins told council members.
The ordinance mandates that no two such places of assembly may operate within 500 feet of each other.
"It seems like a lot of people want to open churches in Forest Park," said Wiggins.
Mayor David Lockhart said he spoke to two ministers associations about the proposed moratorium, asking for input by church leaders.
"What we have now is unenforceable," said Lockhart. "I'd recommend a moratorium of 180 days or until a revision of the ordinance by council."
Lockhart explained that, rather than issuing a "moratorium on approvals for any new churches," the council enacted a moratorium on the enforcement of the ordinance against churches and religious establishments.
"This city has removed a barrier to the operation of churches," he said.
Lockhart said he recently discovered that the ordinance drafted by the city's prior council has made it difficult for churches to operate in Forest Park without unnecessary governmental restrictions.
"Our city attorney suggests that the ordinance, as drafted, may violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act," said Lockhart. "To mitigate any potential harm to churches, the council has acted wisely to immediately halt enforcement of the ordinance against churches and religious establishments."
Bishop Paul Fortson was the only religious leader to take up Lockhart's offer to address council members Monday.
"This will have an effect on a lot of places, especially places of worship," said Fortson. "My concern is how many pastors or Christian leaders will be part of this, to have input on what's going on, if the decision is going to be made by someone not familiar with it personally."
Lockhart reiterated that the city invites input from those religious leaders.
"We want to make sure that what we're trying to do to help doesn't accidentally hurt," he said.
Council also continued the tabling of the issue of replacing Elections Superintendent Darnell Moorer. Ward 4 Councilwoman Latresa Akins broached the subject last month but it was tabled July 1. Akins said Monday that she wanted to continue the delay but didn't offer an explanation.
Ward 5 Councilwoman Linda Lord said wants a full discussion on the issue if it becomes an active agenda item.
"Rather than be ambushed, I want us to have a discussion," said Lord.
A resident expressed concern about the conflict affecting the November election. Qualifying for mayor and wards 1 and 2 will be held next month.
However, Ward 1 Councilman Tommy Smith said an election can be held without a superintendent, if necessary.
"I've checked with the Secretary of State's Office," said Smith. "If we do not have an elections superintendent, the duties go back to the city clerk, Mike Blandenburg. The election won't be interrupted."
Akins expressed concern last month that Moorer was "too political" and was in a position to possibly interfere with the city election. Moorer has been an outspoken opponent of Lockhart, who took office in May following a special election to replace retired Mayor Corine Deyton.