A Kennewick couple who wanted to start a church in their home but have been blocked by city officials have taken the city to court, claiming religious discrimination.
Their appeal, filed Friday in Benton County Superior Court, seeks to overturn a June 28 decision of the Kennewick Board of Adjustment.
Joshua Cole Morgan and his wife, Julie Morgan, say the denial of a permit for a church at 3400 S. Jean St. violated "their congregation's free exercise of religion," and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
Wes Romine, development services manager for Kennewick, determined the Morgans' application for a conditional use permit was an attempt to have the church be ancillary to the couple's business of offering wedding receptions at their property.
Morgan told the Herald on June 24 during an interview in his back yard that church services for up to 20 people would be held in a former two-car garage that had been converted into a photo studio.
He said part of the property was suitable for a chapel to be built later.
The Morgans' attorney, Daniel Kearns of Portland, wrote in his petition to the court that Morgan, as an ordained minister, had applied for the permit knowing that churches are allowed in Kennewick's residential areas.
"If they don't grant us a church, it could be considered discriminatory," Julie Morgan had said in the June 24 interview.
The Morgans' lawsuit contends denying the permit "prevents them from observing their religious tenets in violation of the First Amendment."
They fully expected that, along with the church services, they would be allowed to have "accessory religious uses, including weddings, christenings, funerals, picnics, fellowship functions, seminars, charity functions and related church functions," the court filing says.
The Morgans say their outdoor functions, such as weddings and receptions, could have up to 200 people.
Romine's decision to deny the permit in April, which led to the appeal to the Board of Adjustment, was based on a conclusion that they were adding the church function as a secondary use and that the main purpose was to continue to have outdoor weddings and receptions.
City officials previously ordered the Morgans to stop holding wedding receptions and obtained a court order to force compliance.
City records say neighbors' complaints started piling up in 2005, leading to a city order to stop the wedding parties and a court order in September 2008 prohibiting them. A contempt order was issued against the Morgans in late 2009 for violating the court order.
Nearly a dozen of their neighbors wrote letters of complaint to the city about traffic problems, noise and litter.
Morgan said he made a living painting houses before getting into the home-based wedding reception business and was ordained seven years ago through United Ministries of California.
He said he has performed hundreds of weddings and more recently has felt called to start a church.
He has a city business license for home-based portrait photography and a wedding planning business but not to conduct wedding receptions or private parties, the Herald confirmed.