Town Officials Try to Shut Down Barn Church

Town Officials Try to Shut Down Barn Church

A pastor of a house church in Weare, New Hampshire, filed a lawsuit against town officials after being informed that his home could not be used for “religious assemblies.”

Pastor Howard Kaloogian has been hosting events, such as weddings, board game tournaments and political rallies, in the fully renovated barn on his property for nearly a decade, and a Bible study in his home for two years. But when a zoning official found out that they were holding church services, the tide changed quickly.

According to court documents, Kaloogian and his wife had gained permission from the Weare Planning Board to use the barn for any lawful purpose, given they did not charge for the events. They have never had a problem with an event in the past, many of which were widely advertised in the town.

Last year, Kaloogian planted a church called Grace New England, a plant of Grace Community Church in Texas, that met in his barn. His barn has pews, a pulpit and a heater, and the gatherings are usually less than 30 people.

However, when Weare’s zoning enforcement official Tony Sawyer, a self-proclaimed atheist, found out about the church, he showed up at Kaloogian’s front door and told him he could no longer use any part of his home, including the barn, for religious assemblies. The barn was zoned residential—assemblies constitute a “change in use,” and Kaloogian would be required to complete a site plan application and seek a conditional use permit (which Sawyer said would most likely be denied).

Kaloogian politely refused to comply based on his rights under the First Amendment and his knowledge of Weare’s zoning laws. Since then, officials have denied an application to one of his contractors for permits to install a better heater in his barn, causing significant delay. He has been subjected to repeated home inspections. On Oct. 23 of last year, Kaloogian received a letter from the town, signed by Sawyer, demanding him to “immediately stop any assembly regarding Grace New England Church.” Town officials threatened to take legal action if Kaloogian did not comply by Feb. 10.

Attorneys with First Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kaloogian and Grace New England on Feb. 9, seeking relief and damages. The complaint says that the town’s actions violate the church’s rights under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment, as well as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which prohibits land use regulations that burden exercise of religion without a compelling reason and bars governmental discrimination on the basis of religion or denomination.

Additionally, the town’s actions, First Liberty contends, violate the New Hampshire Constitution and a New Hampshire statute that prohibits burdensome zoning restrictions for land used for religious purposes. To top it off, the town’s zoning ordinances clearly permit churches in districts zoned “residential.”

The zoning officials have turned a blind eye to other, secular events in the town—Super Bowl parties, book clubs, etc.—even those at Kaloogian’s barn, the church’s attorneys argue. It was the religious assembly specifically that they have decided to target.

“Demanding that a small group of Christians stop meeting in a home for worship and prayer is flagrant denial on the free exercise of their religious beliefs,” said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel with First Liberty. “Hundreds of thousands of Americans meet every day in homes for prayer meetings, Bible studies, book clubs, card games, and other gatherings. Why would Weare city officials stop this small, Christian congregation from legally doing likewise?”

Photo: First Liberty Institute

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