A Massachusetts church with a majority Latino congregation has filed a lawsuit against officials in a city called Lynn, charging it has been prevented from using vacant space to worship – a violation of federal and state constitutions.

Iglesia Christina Renacer said in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Boston that Lynn city officials ordered it to stop renovating the church and prevented them from worshipping there in 2009, saying the property didn't have parking space for its potential capacity of 288 people even though the church has about 84 active members.

Federal law is clear that where you have a system of exceptions and discretion, that unless you have a compelling interest that you are trying to protect you cannot deny a religious organization a hardship exemption.

- Attorney Noel Sterett, who represents the church

Court documents say one of the most vocal church opponents is City Council President John Phelan, whose home is next to the property. He and others have argued in City Council meetings and zoning board hearings that the church would hurt property values and quality of life in the neighborhood, according to court documents.

Iglesia Christina Renacer was founded in Everett in 1994 and bought the Lynn property in 2009 for $350,950. The church then spent more than $100,000 to repair it for more than a month after receiving permits from Lynn's Inspectional Services Department. But the agency abruptly issued a cease-and-desist order in May 2009 that stopped all interior renovations, telling the church that it must provide at least one parking space for every three seats before it could use the property for worship and religious assembly.

That requirement would compel the church to provide 96 parking spaces for its 84 worshippers. A different church just half a mile away has the maximum projected occupancy of more than twice that of Iglesia Christina Renacer but has about 12 off-street parking spots, said attorney Noel Sterett, who represents the church.

Lynn officials have rejected repeated applications for exemptions usually given in cases of hardship, Sterett said.

"Federal law is clear that where you have a system of exceptions and discretion, that unless you have a compelling interest that you are trying to protect you cannot deny a religious organization a hardship exemption," he said.

Lynn city officials didn't immediately return calls for comment Thursday night. A phone call to Phelan's home rang unanswered, and he didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The lawsuit claims that Lynn's opposition to the church's religious assembly at the Anchor Road property violated federal laws that protect houses of worship from discriminatory treatment.

"They want to occupy their own building," Sterett said. "This is a property that they spent over $350,000 for, and they want to use it, as the zoning code permits them to, as a church."

City hearings have caused the church to incur nearly $50,000 in fees for applications, lawyers, engineers and architects, Sterett said. The church also has had to pay insurance costs of nearly $3,800 a year and mortgage payments totaling more than $62,600 for a property that city officials have prevented it from using, he said.

Attorneys say the church's tithes and offerings have declined as a result of the city's opposition to its religious assembly at the property. The inability to use the property has also caused a substantial number of people to leave the church and its average weekly attendance has declined significantly, according to the lawsuit.

"The church has lost its momentum in ministering to the residents of Lynn as a result of the city's prohibition of its religious assembly at the church property," according to the lawsuit. The city has used its land ordinances in a way that violates both federal and state laws protecting places of worship "is inflicting irreparable harm to the congregations."

Based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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