Originally created 04/10/98

Board keeps stance despite bill passing



GREENVILLE, S.C. -- The Greenville County zoning board has refused to budge on its threats of fining a pastor $1,000 a day for holding prayer meetings at his home, despite Gov. David Beasley's approval of legislation allowing it.

The measure, signed into law Tuesday, prohibits counties and cities from using zoning laws to ban church-related activities in single-family residences.

Zoning board members said Wednesday that top county officials lacked the authority to ask them to back down but left the door open for the Rev. Orie Wenger, the associate pastor of Mount Zion Christian Fellowship, to appeal their month-old decision.

County zoning administrators ordered the Rev. Wenger to stop the prayer meetings after his neighbors complained about traffic and noise. The zoning officials told the Rev. Wenger the meetings turned his house into a church and that he needed special permission to set up a church.

With the zoning board holding fast and the new state law on the books, the dispute over the Rev. Wenger's Bible study meeting could land in court.

State lawmakers rushed through legislation after learning the county had told the Rev. Wenger he could not have church-related activities at home.

One of the board's longtime members said he sees little willingness on the board to back down and said he would personally fight doing so.

Avery Wood, who also is a former chairman of the group, said religion was not the issue.

"This was heard thoroughly," Mr. Wood said. "It has been mischaracterized because in my mind, and I believe in my fellow board members' minds, it had nothing to do with the activity occurring."

The Rev. Wenger's lawyer, David Holmes, said the board probably could uphold its decision despite the new state law. He said the board's March ruling was vague, because it added that the Rev. Wenger's frequent meetings violated the spirit of the zoning ordinance in addition to supporting an earlier order that talked about prohibiting church-related activities.

Although the zoning ordinance says nothing about how often a homeowner can have guests, Mr. Wood said he believes people would violate the law if they have guests or events at home two or three times a week.