The U.S. Justice Department is investigating whether Fairfax City illegally discriminated against a religious institution when it blocked construction of a 200-seat church after neighbors expressed concern about potential congestion.
The federal government's intervention in the city's treatment of One God Ministry is the Washington area's first test of a five-year-old law that gives special protection to religious institutions facing zoning reviews.
Fairfax, a city of 22,000 in the center of Fairfax County, counts several churches in its 6.3 square miles, and city leaders say they welcome them. But the case of One God Ministry has dragged on for 15 months, roiling local politics, generating lawsuits, angering neighbors and racking up thousands of dollars in legal fees.
The City Council approved pastor Johnson A. Edosomwan's application for a special permit last week in an attempt to persuade the Justice Department to end its investigation.
"This was pure and simple a land-use issue, like we get with fast-food restaurants and commercial establishments," Mayor Robert F. Lederer said. "This was not a religious issue."
Edosomwan is a businessman and self-described apostle who owns a dozen properties on and around Chain Bridge Road, one of the city's main arteries. In September 2004, following the planning staff's recommendation, the council approved his application for a special permit to build a two-story, 11,000-square-foot church at 4280 and 4282 Chain Bridge Road. Another church sits across the street. But two weeks later, after meeting with neighbors, the council took another vote and reversed the approval.
Then Edosomwan sued the city, alleging that the mayor and two council members had met illegally with 20 residents to discuss concerns about the project. After negotiating with the city and agreeing to drop the lawsuit, Edosomwan tried again, resubmitting his proposal with more parking. He was turned down again in February and filed two more lawsuits against the city seeking to overturn the decision.