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SEWICKLEY HEIGHTS (KDKA) — When can you hold a Bible study, a religious gathering, or a worship service on your own property?
If you think the answer is — anytime I want because my religious rights are protected by the First Amendment — you might want to live outside Sewickley Heights Borough.
A couple from that borough has gone to federal court over this issue.
Lawyers from a non-profit religious rights group in Harrisburg say religious activities are being unconstitutionally prohibited by Sewickley Heights Borough, which is now in the middle of a property dispute with Theresa and Scott Fetterolf who own Dundee Farms.
“The idea that the Fetterolfs were being told that they couldn’t have their religious events on their property or even a Bible study on their property seemed too bizarre to be true,” said attorney Randall Wenger of the Independence Law Center on Wednesday.
But that’s what happened last fall when the borough issued a “cease and desist order” to the Fetterolfs that specifically listed Bible study, a night of worship and prayer, a retreat for deep worship, and a Feed my Lambs fundraiser for a Kenyan Christian group.
“They’ve banned the Fetterolfs from doing any religious fundraisers when other people around the community are permitted to do political fundraisers,” says attorney Jeremy Samek, also with the Independence Law Center. “They’ve also prohibited them from having youth group meetings where children come together to sing religious worship songs.”
Both attorneys told KDKA’s Jon Delano they are representing the Fetterolfs pro bono because of the important religious issues at stake.
A broad empty part of the farm is where the Fetterolfs have held religious activities for about 20 to 40 youth, and in the past have hosted events on Labor Day, picnics, for about 100 seminarians.
The previous property owner even held religious fundraisers here, including one for Billy Graham.
But the borough says, no more to that.
Borough officials with whom KDKA spoke say the Fetterolfs’ religious gatherings are on a scale much bigger than prior owners, involving hundreds of people and many more cars, and in a letter to local residents, the mayor and council president insist they are not trying to ban bible study in the home.
To get some clarification, the Fetterolfs have gone to federal court.
“There are things that are core to our First Amendment freedoms that no government should ever be able to come in and limit those activities,” notes Wenger.
How quickly the federal court acts remains to be seen, but the Fetterolfs say they have been abiding by the cease and desist order.
Sewickley Heights officials say, besides these religious activities, the Fetterolfs also violate local zoning laws because of other farming-related activities they hold on their property often for a fee.
But it’s the ban on religious activity that is getting increased national attention.