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Heated words exchanged at Richfield Town Council regarding church permit

A heated exchange took place at Monday night’s meeting of the Richfield Town Council between a council member and a Richfield resident.

Commissioner Jim Misenheimer gave a zoning report to fellow commissioners and community members about the recent situation involving a permit request by Richfield United Methodist Church to renovate its kitchen for the purpose of hosting Community Table meals provided by Stanly Community Christian Ministry. (See related story: https://www.thesnaponline.com/2020/11/09/richfield-umc-town-officials-continue-to-discuss-renovation-of-churchs-kitchen/)

In a prepared statement, Misenheimer stated letters were sent out to all mayors and local officials on Dec. 15, 2016, regarding the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The Act, according to the U.S. Department of Justice website, “prohibits the implementation of any land use regulation that imposes a ‘substantial burden’ on the religious exercise of a person or religious assembly or institution except where justified by a ‘compelling governmental interest’ that the government pursues in the least restrictive way possible.

Misenheimer said the Act “protects places of worship and faith-based social service providers using land for religious purposes.” He added violations of the act “can be based on statements by city officials indicating bias or evidence that the city sought to appease citizens who had expressed bias.”

The commissioner said federal civil rights laws take precedence over local zoning laws. He added based on the events between the town of Richfield and the church, along with RLUIPA, “a substantial burden has been imposed on the church and its ministries by the town of Richfield by continually denying approval of a permit application multiple times.”

As Misenheimer said, “no compelling government interest has been stated by the Town of Richfield to justify continued denial of the permit,” a member of the community in attendance, later identified as Scottie Heglar, interrupted the meeting to ask a question.

Misenheimer said he was out of order, to which Heglar said “you’ve been out of order and I’m sick of hearing this.”

Continuing while Mayor Terry Deese struck the gavel, Heglar said “on the front page of the paper, you said we should have done this a long time ago before it drawed (sic) unwanted attention. That’s not transparency. You don’t give a damn about the residents.”

Deese said the Board needed to go into executive session to discuss legal matters. Misenheimer disagreed, saying he was reading about the previously mentioned letters about RLUIPA.

“I’m over zoning so I have a right to read the law that the town of Richfield is violating,” Misenheimer said.

Commissioners disagreed over whether it was a legal matter. Misenheimer said it was not since no lawsuit had been filed yet.

Referring to his report, Deese said, ”Let him finish,” which Misenheimer did, stating his belief the church “has a very strong civil rights case against” the town, adding it could cost Richfield “a great deal of money.”

At the end of the report, Misenheimer made a motion to immediately approve the permit for Richfield UMC. However, the motion did not receive a second and the board did not consider it for a vote.

Public comments conducted after the motion failed saw citizens speak against the project.

Jerry Meismer said he received the first invitation to the church in the 40 years he has lived in the town recently “just because they’re trying to push this soup kitchen.”

He also stated, in his opinion, “church is where you worship, not invite people in to eat.” He further stated “I’m a Christian. I want to help people…that’s what we’re all here for.”

Rick Russell, who said he just moved into a house beside the church, said he would have “probably the most to have to contend with as far as what’s going to be wandering around the church.”

“I don’t even know what we’re talking about as far as starving people in Richfield,” Russell said. “Where are all these people going to suddenly start showing up from and what will they be doing after they have had their meal?”

Russell, quoting Meismer’s earlier comment, said Richfield UMC “is basically dying. There’s nobody there. Does that mean it suddenly becomes a magnet to whatever person we can bus in?”

Referring to another person sitting in the audience, Russell asked “Got a church near your (house)? Feed them there.”

Jennette Russell, wife of Rick Russell, said “there needs to be a better assessment of what people need than just say, ‘OK. We’re going to feed them one meal a day. We’ll get them there, feed them and hope they get home.”

Christy NeCaise, a resident just elected to the board, said she would like to see a meeting between Richfield UMC and the community along with members of Crossroads Connections. (For related story, click here: https://www.thesnaponline.com/2020/07/08/richfield-umc-partners-with-impact-in-community-outreach/ )

Regarding the intentions of the parties involved, NeCaise said, “I don’t feel in my heart we know the truth…if drug people start coming in, I don’t care for the needles and that stuff on our road.”

About Charles Curcio

Charles Curcio was the sports editor of the Stanly News & Press from 1999-2001 and has currently served in the same capacity since 2008. He was awarded the NCHSAA Tim Stevens Media Representative of the Year and named CNHI Sports Editor of the Year in 2014. He has also been honored twice by the North Carolina Press Association.

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