Thursday afternoon the city planning commission recommended that a conditional use permit for a local church that wants to open its doors on Main Street be denied. The decision came after a lengthy back and forth debate about the pros and cons.
Chris Frederick, a member of the church that spoke at Thursday’s meeting, said the church feels they are being discriminated against. He mentioned a specific law that the church and its lawyer believe the city will be violating if they do not issue the permit.
“In 2000, the federal government passed a piece of legislation called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This act protects churches and religious organizations from discrimination by cities and zoning boards,” Frederick said,  adding that under this law, churches must receive the same treatment as other institutions.
“We feel like we have been discriminated against in this situation and in accordance with this legislation we have contacted the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and they are awaiting the results of today’s meeting,” Frederick said.
He said the church loves the community and simply wants to be a part of the improvements and growth downtown.
Community Development Director Jessica Scott said a major objection mentioned in the letters of protest concerned ABLE laws associated with churches. While existing businesses would not be affected, new businesses such as bars would not be able to open within 300 feet of the church. Potential new restaurants would not be affected as long as at least 35 percent of their sales come from food, and they maintain a full kitchen and menu.
Objections also included concerns about parking. The building does not have its own parking lot. Currently, the church has a congregation size of less than 50 and their only service is held on Sunday morning. During the meeting, some attendees voiced concerns that if the church grows, the parking situation could become a problem. Parking could also pose a problem if the church were to open for events during the week.
Charles Roberts, attorney for First Christian Church, countered that downtown Ardmore already has several event centers that also take up parking space when they host functions.
“This is exactly what the federal law is about,” Roberts said. “You can’t discriminate against a church that’s going to have people coming in when you’ve allowed these other event centers to come into town.” He noted other churches located within a few blocks of the location.
 “First Christian is just asking to be treated like other churches and in accordance with federal law,” Roberts said.
Once everyone was finished speaking, there was a long pause before a motion was made to recommend the permit be denied. In the end, five voted to deny, one voted to approve, and two abstained.
The ultimate decision about whether the church gets its permit will now rest in the hands of the city commissioners who will vote on March 18.