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Church granted permit for site

| Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2002

The Second Baptist Church of Homestead received a permit Monday to occupy the former Grace Christian Ministries Church of West Mifflin, but remains embroiled in a federal civil rights suit that claims the church was denied the permit through discrimination.

Getting an occupancy permit was the major hurdle holding up the sale of the Coal Road property to Second Baptist.

Proceeds from the sale will provide restitution to victims of the Rev. Michael Altman, the former Grace Christian pastor who pleaded no contest to charges of duping investors out of $355,553 in a phony securities scheme. Altman was sentenced June 5 to four to eight years in prison and 20 years' probation.

"The ACLU is pleased that West Mifflin saw the light," said Witold "Vic" Walczak, legal director for Pittsburgh's office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The occupancy permit is at the heart of a federal civil rights lawsuit that the ACLU filed on behalf of Second Baptist.

The lawsuit argues that West Mifflin officials had approved Grace Christian — a mostly white congregation — to use the property for religious purposes but denied, without explanation, Second Baptist's application to use the site for similar purposes. West Mifflin and its zoning officer, Dennis Butler, are named as defendants.

Borough officials said they denied the permit because of testimony in May by Thomas Earhart, Second Baptist's attorney, indicating the primary occupant of the site would be the Noah's Ark Christian Care center, a for-profit day care, which is prohibited in a residentially zoned area.

But church officials indicated during testimony in federal court that the church would be the primary occupant of the site, prompting West Mifflin officials to ultimately issue the occupancy permit.

"The borough is unilaterally issuing the certificate of occupancy at this time, both as a measure of good faith and in reliance upon the testimony of the trustees," Mike Adams, attorney for the borough zoning hearing board, and Donald Fetzko, the borough solicitor, wrote in a letter to Earhart. "The borough welcomes the Second Baptist Church to West Mifflin."

Adams and Fetzko, however, maintain that neither the borough nor Butler discriminated against the church.

"There was no settlement here," Adams said yesterday. "The borough will continue to adamantly deny these unfounded charges and we're going to continue to fight this."

Adams said they're also considering a countersuit against the ACLU.

He said he and Fetzko believe the ACLU "set-up the borough" for the discrimination case. Adams said Earhart was in contact with ACLU attorneys before the church was denied the occupancy permit.

But Walczak said Earhart contacted them because "the writing was on the wall.

"If they're alleging conspiracy between all of Second Baptist's attorneys to protect the church's civil rights, then we're guilty," he said.

A continuation of the civil rights case scheduled Friday before U.S. District Judge David Cercone has been cancelled, and the parties will meet after the new year to discuss a timetable for finishing the case.

Walczak said a motion for a preliminary injunction to get an occupancy permit, which was filed with the civil rights lawsuit, is now moot.

Representatives from Second Baptist said they're withholding comment until a news conference, scheduled for 1 p.m. today at the 12th Street church.

"Clearly we have a couple of the hurdles out of the way," Earhart said yesterday. "We intend to move forward to take possession of the place."

Mark Christman, an attorney with the Downtown law firm of Strassburger McKenna Gutnick & Potter, said they're now working to close the sale of the church property. The law firm was the trustee for Grace Christian Ministries' assets.

He said the $950,000 sale price for the church will pay off the property's mortgage and will provide most of the restitution money.

The remaining restitution is pending the results of a state court case. West Mifflin is appealing Allegheny County Judge Joseph James' Oct. 8 ruling that overturned the zoning hearing board's denial of a zoning variance to allow the day care center.

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