Tuesday, September 23, 2008
What Constitutes a Church?
A Pennsylvania couple is fighting to maintain “a church” they run from a Huntingdon Township home. The problem with their fight is that local government officials say their “church” is really a raunchy swingers club where single men have to pay for access but women come for free.
John and Kim Ondrik say they worship nature at the Church for Spiritual Humanism. But midnight mass at the Spiritual Palace is on hold as the Rev. John and his wife fight for a variance to continue practicing their “religion” in a residential area just outside of Pittsburgh.
Opponents of his church, including neighbors and North Huntingdon Township officials, say what’s really behind those closed doors is a club called the “Swinger’s Palace.”
Township commissioner Richard Gray said it’s been an open secret that a swingers club has operated out of the two-story house since the 1970s, but they finally have the evidence to shut it down. [Are you concerned that it took 35+ years for them to gather enough evidence? Are you kidding me? What did it take for the government to do something—a disgruntled “swinger”?]
Gray said the dispute is not about church or sex—it’s about having a business operating in a residentially zoned area. “The mere fact that they were charging a mandatory fee to get in, in my opinion, would constitute a business,” he said.
An attorney representing John Ondrik said that members in the private church give a donation and aren’t charged to get inside the midnight masses, which typically take place on Friday and Saturday nights. [This might be further proof that what they are doing isn’t church—do any of know anyone who goes to church at midnight, on both Friday and Saturday nights?]
A law professor also weighed in on the matter: “You have a right to run a church in a residential area not because of your free exercise rights under the Constitution, but simply because churches are not primarily commercial,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University.
Ledewitz said the Ondriks might have a case if they can convince authorities they’re sincere about their religion and that they truly believe in their church.
This is an interesting case. Most of us attend or serve in churches that are located in neighborhoods. Many newer neighborhoods even include churches in the design of their new subdivisions. So, from that perspective, I don’t have a leg to stand on to complain about this issue.
However, if the evidence shows that more is going on than worship, then I’d have a problem. While I don’t support a swinger’s palace, no matter its location, a business has no place in a local neighborhood. If it is proven that this “church” is nothing more than a business, then they should be shut down or moved to another location.
What do you think?