First Liberty Institute and the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery have sent a letter to Addison, Texas, challenging the town’s denial of a zoning permit that is keeping a historic black church started by formerly enslaved Americans from holding Sunday church services or even a Bible study.
White Rock Chapel was founded by freed slaves in 1865 in an area that eventually grew into the incorporated town of Addison. The members of the church worked for 19 years to save money in order to buy land and build a church building, no small feat for former slaves. Remarkably, the man who sold them the land was the man who had enslaved them. The man not only sold them the land, but then began attending services at the church.
The church faced many trials including a major flood, which led the church to look for a new location on higher ground. A white landowner donated 2 acres to the church in 1918 and he also worshipped alongside the congregation. The church faced more obstacles over the next hundred years, including a storm that took out one building, a fire suspected to be arson that took out another, and financial straits that sent the church into receivership.
In 2018, Dr. Donald Wesson and his family purchased the property in order to preserve the heritage of White Rock Chapel, to allow members to gather for worship and Bible study, and to conduct community ministry.
Despite the fact that Addison has zero churches, the city council and a surrounding upscale neighborhood are using zoning regulations to block White Rock Chapel from re-opening its doors and living out its Christian faith. In 2021, the city council suddenly demanded that White Rock Chapel obtain a special-use permit before it could re-open its doors as a church, a request that forced it to undergo a series of additional and onerous bureaucratic demands. It later voted against granting the permit.
This violates the Constitution, according to the legal letter sent by Wesson’s attorneys. It explained:
“Because the Council denied White Rock Chapel’s Permit, it barred any possibility for White Rock Chapel to function and exist. Such a deliberate prohibition is in direct violation of state and federal law and constitutionally protected freedoms. The Council must immediately approve of a Permit that will allow White Rock Chapel to engage in religious and educational activities.”
Wesson and his family see the church as important not only for its historic significance and spiritual blessing but also for the message of reconciliation its past gives to a nation struggling with race relations.
As Wesson told First Liberty Live,
“We want to continue to build on that historic, spiritual legacy of reconciliation. I cannot imagine more adversarial and disparate groups than a former enslaver, and the formerly enslaved coming together, working together to not only start a church but to attend a church at the same time, and they did so for generations thereafter. That’s a story that we need to continue to build on… that’s not just a story for Addison. That’s not just a story for Texas. That’s a story for the nation, to learn, to build on and to emulate.”
Wesson thought the city would be excited to partner with him in maintaining the legacy of the church, which is a designated Texas historic landmark, but he found that some did not share his enthusiasm. “We thought the neighborhood and even the town would say, ‘Hallelujah. How can we help you?’ The response was exactly the opposite,” he stated.
When Wesson first applied for a permit from the city, neighbors complained. When White Rock Chapel was first built, the city of Addison didn’t exist, now the church and its property are surrounded by multi-million dollar homes.
City officials asked Wesson to attempt to peacefully come to an agreement with the neighbors, something he attempted to do numerous times. After holding meetings on the church property three times, Wesson then met with the primary dissenters seven times and allegedly consented to their demands each time, yet when Wesson tried to get a permit, the neighbors started a petition, meaning Wesson was required to get three-fourths of the city council members to approve his request. That meant Wesson needed six of seven votes. He got five.
First Liberty Institute attorney Jeremy Dys said that the complaints by neighbors, as well as their demands, weren’t reasonable concerns about parking or traffic, things which were dealt with previously, but ones of a darker nature. For example, one of the demands was that the church wouldn’t hold weddings. Dys said one of the neighbors complained, “You’re going to bus kids from South Dallas, which is a heavily minority part of town to this part of town, which is less than a minority part of town. You’re gonna have those kids coming up here and who knows what they’re gonna be doing.”
Dys said that what is really going on is the neighbors simply don’t want the church there.
Howard Freed, a neighbor, said in a statement to CBS News Texas, “We had a small, quiet, black church that all of the neighbors embraced. We would all be happy to support that again. The Wessons have visions of grandeur for this site which would disrupt our neighborhood and probably hurt our property values…We do not want an active church or any commercial entity in the middle of our neighborhood.”
The decision by a government to use zoning and permitting regulations to block a religious congregation from operating their church and worshipping God is not the same as objecting to a skate park or a strip mall.
White Rock Chapel has a constitutional and God-given right to live out its faith, and government, by law, cannot interfere with that right.
The church existed before zoning laws, and it has the right to continue to worship in the building that it owns. The zoning and permitting regulations are allegedly being applied far more aggressively to White Rock Chapel than even to the neighbors, who, according to the legal letter, are permitted to conduct repairs and hold gatherings of equal size to the church at their homes. This looks far more like religious hostility than anything about noise concerns or quality of life.
Thomas Jefferson once stated:
“…the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty.”
That a town of nearly 20,000 people doesn’t have a church — or even want a church — is a sad reflection of just how secular American society is becoming. But it doesn’t matter. The Constitution is not subject to the whims of trendy beliefs or a Not-In-My-Backyard mentality.
When rights are under attack, the government cannot acquiesce to those with the loudest voices, the strongest influence, or the deepest pocketbooks. Government officials have a duty to follow the law and protect the constitutional freedoms of its citizens. That is a principle that Addison’s city council is likely to become thoroughly reacquainted with in the near future — if not from their own legal advisers, then from a federal judge.
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.
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