The Addison, Texas City Council voted in July to deny a special use permit request to the current owners of the White Rock Chapel, a historically black church founded in 1884 by freed slaves.
Now, attorneys with First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm, have stepped in to help the owners, writing an 11-page letter urging city officials to approve the zoning application for the chapel. The building was designated a historic site by the Texas Historical Commission in 2000.
“It’s a shame that some residents in the neighborhood are opposing the church’s right to exist and aim to banish this historic landmark that symbolizes the freedoms granted to all Americans,” First Liberty Institute Counsel Ryan Gardner said in a press release. “The city should ignore the heckling of a handful of neighbors and allow this small, African American church to exemplify the core values of unity, diversity, and religious freedom that strengthen all communities.”
According to First Liberty, White Rock Chapel was predominantly founded by formerly enslaved men and women, who purchased land and built the very first church out of rough-hewn logs near White Rock Creek following emancipation. In 1918, after enduring years of devastating flash floods, the congregation moved to higher ground at the current location on Celestial Road.
In August 2018, the current owners of White Rock Chapel purchased the property and brought it out of receivership. They saved the historic church from demolition. Then the owners sought building permits to restore the property. However, the city council denied the permits even after they were advanced by the city’s planning and zoning commission.
“The City’s denial deprives a historic church—founded almost 150 years ago by formerly enslaved men and women—of its right to religious exercise. More specifically, the City prevents the church from making essential improvements so that it can continue to exist as a place of worship. A small but influential group of opponents have fought—thus far successfully—to stop the church from doing so. But the law is clear. Opposition by a few, no matter how hostile or influential they are, cannot override the church’s right of religious exercise,” the First Liberty letter said.
“White Rock Chapel’s right to make necessary improvements to continue as a place of worship is fully and clearly protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000,” the letter continued.
“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,” the letter said.
A statement was posted on the city’s website announcing the denial of a special use permit to White Rock Chapel at the city council’s July 25 meeting.
“When owners of more than 20 percent of the land within 200 feet of a proposed zoning change file a written protest with the Town, as was the case with the White Rock Chapel request, the request must be approved by a three-fourths vote of the Council, which is six out of seven members,” the statement said.
“The Council was not able to reach the supermajority approval needed for the proposed zoning request to pass in its current form,” the statement continued.
“However, the Council did vote to waive the one-year waiting period for refiling which allows the applicant the opportunity to bring forward a new request at any time,” the statement concluded.