Telsa DeBerry is the pastor of the Opulent Life Baptist Church in Holly Springs, Mississippi. No stranger to need to protect religious freedom in America in 2014, he came up against zoning laws hostile to religion when he wanted to move his church to accommodate its growing needs. Late Tuesday in Jackson, the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed. Pastor DeBerry talks about its importance with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why would anyone in Mississippi need any additional religious liberty protections such as what legislators are trying to do with the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act?
TELSA DEBERRY: When the City of Holly Springs discriminated against Opulent Life Church, the city did so through a zoning ordinance. Thankfully, there is a federal law that protects some churches from land use discrimination like Holly Springs’. If Holly Springs had discriminated against us in another way, or if Opulent Life Church did not qualify for federal protection, the city would have been free to discriminate against us. The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act would provide legal protection for small churches like the Opulent Life Church that are discriminated against in ways not already protected by federal law or that do not qualify for federal protection. The bill would also protect individuals and non-church religious organizations who are discriminated against for their religious beliefs: college students forced to violate their religious beliefs in order to pass a class, charities told that they may not share food with the poor, or nurses forced by a public hospital to perform abortions.
The Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act would protect religious exercise from hostile and bureaucratic government entities. This bill would stop religious discrimination like the discrimination that my church faced from the City of Holly Springs. As I learned first hand, government entities can and do discriminate today, and churches, ministries, individuals, and the communities that they serve will all benefit from ending religious discrimination.
LOPEZ: What does religious liberty mean to you? How do you see it threatened today?
DEBERRY: As an African-American pastor of a small Baptist church in Mississippi that has faced religious discrimination, religious liberty is very dear to me. Without protection for our freedom to act upon our religious beliefs and convictions, churches like the Opulent Life Church are marginalized in a society that less and less values the ministries that we do to improve our communities, to take care of the poor and hungry, and to serve others.
Today there are more threats to religious liberty than ever before. Students are threatened with being sent to jail for mentioning Jesus at school, homeless shelters are being told that they cannot feed the hungry, and veterans memorials are being torn down because they include a cross. One student was even suspended from his college because he refused to stomp on a piece of paper with the word, “Jesus” written on it.
Bills like the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act provide a very important protection for churches and people who make a very real difference in the world today but are increasingly being told that their faith has no place in society. These bills also allow us to spend our time and resources ministering instead of fighting with government entities.
LOPEZ: How were you discriminated against when you tried to open your church?
DEBERRY: The church that I pastor, the Opulent Life Church in Holly Springs, Mississippi, opened in February of 2011. We started in a borrowed building but needed our own to establish our identity and to fulfill the vision that the current building could not support. We found some vacant property on the Holly Springs town square that would allow us to grow and to eventually open a coffee shop that would serve as an outreach to the community.
We leased the property on the town square and submitted a building plan to the Holly Springs City Planning Commission. Unfortunately, the City Planning Commission refused to grant our request for a permit. We eventually learned that our request was denied because Holly Springs enacted an ordinance that prohibited any church from moving into a new location unless 60 percent of the property owners within a 1,300 foot radius approved of the church. This restriction applied only to churches. Because many of the properties in the area were abandoned, tracking down 60 percent of the owners was impossible.
LOPEZ:Was there ever any question that you were not just misunderstanding sensible zoning law?
DEBERRY: No, the law in Holly Springs was very clear that no church could build or move into a space unless 60 percent of the property owners within a 1,300-foot radius approved of the church. The city ordinance was also very clear that it only applied to churches. Any other type of organization or business could move in without that restriction, but churches were prohibited unless they could gain this 60 percent approval. Liberty Institute, a pro-bono religious liberties law firm in Plano, Texas, agreed to help us and discussed the law with the city officials, who refused to stop discriminating. Thankfully, the Liberty Institute was able to help the Opulent Life Church, and we won at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
LOPEZ: People see your name in news stories. What do you wish they could know about you and what motivates you?
DEBERRY: I want people to know that I am standing for the protection of the rights of all people. I just don’t want religious people to be second-class citizens. I am motivated by injustice, and the way religious people are discriminated against is not just.