From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Casino wins, church mission loses

Date 20 May 1996 14:43:26

          Here is a UCC press release on the activity around Back Bay
          Mission in Biloxi, Miss.

Dec. 14, 1995
Office of Communication
United Church of Christ
Nancy M. Erikson or Hans Holznagel
(216) 736-2200 (Cleveland)

In Biloxi, contact:
the Rev. David Stephens or
the Rev. Bruno Schroeder
(601) 432-0301

The UCC on the World Wide Web:

Casino wins, 70-year-old church mission loses;
three buildings razed so far in Biloxi, Miss.

      BILOXI, Miss. -- The Biloxi City Council this week gave
the developers of a $120-million casino complex an early
Christmas present -- wider streets -- paving the way for casino
crews to begin demolishing five buildings at an active
70-year-old church mission.
      Biloxi officials decided at a city council meeting Dec. 12
not to allow the United Church of Christ-related Back Bay
Mission a zoning variance which would have saved two buildings
at the mission site.  So the mission is asking that demolition
of the administrative offices be delayed until Jan. 15 -- in
part so that the mission can complete its Christmastime
distribution of food, clothing and toys to the needy.
      Bulldozers have already razed three other buildings on the
part of the mission property facing Caillavet Street.  Back Bay
Mission had hoped the city would grant a zoning variance for two
buildings facing Bayview Avenue.  The zoning variance would have
allowed the buildings to be set back less than 25 feet from the
city right-of-ways; the street is an additional seven feet from
the property boundary.  The avenue is being widened to
accommodate projected casino traffic.
      This is a busy time of the year for the mission, which
will be distributing clothing, food and toys for the Christmas
holiday in the next two weeks.  The mission's executive
director, the Rev. David Stephens, said he is negotiating with
the city to allow him until Jan. 15, 1996, to renovate a
three-bedroom house on the property and move there before the
mission offices are demolished.  The other building, formerly
housing a congregation, will be only partly demolished this
month but should be able to be salvaged, Stephens said.
      Situated on 1.8 acres, the UCC-related Back Bay Mission
was formed in the early 1920s and provides emergency assistance
of food and prescriptions annually to more than 5,000 persons. 
The mission also operates a thrift shop that provides low cost
and free clothing and household goods to low income people in
the Biloxi area.  Back Bay staff spend about half their time
organizing new service agencies, such as the Gulf Coast Women's
Center, Coastal Family Health Center and the South Mississippi
AIDS Task Force.
      Stephens said that although the mission is not going to
close, the changes will have an impact on the community. 
Actions taken against the mission demonstrate the need for
justice ministry in the Biloxi area, he said.
      Since the casino project was begun, the city has worked
with the casino to get land that belongs to the mission without
just compensation for the mission?s losses.  In the city's
eminent domain lawsuit in the lower court in May, a jury
assigned an value of $514,000 to the property for access, but
allowed nothing for the buildings on that property.  The mission
appraiser, who included the buildings, assigned a value or $1.2
      "The experience that Back Bay Mission has had with the
government here confirms the need for our mission in this
community," Stephens said.  "The injustice of the situation is
precisely the reason we should be here."
      However, there is a larger issue at stake here for not
only the mission, but the entire faith community about how
"church" is defined by the courts, said Stephens.
      Throughout the past year, Back Bay Mission has been
struggling with Biloxi's city council over relinquishing some of
its land for the street widening project.  On May 1, the city
filed suit to take 18,000 square feet of Back Bay Mission
property to widen two streets leading to entrances to the casino
being built next to the mission.
      Back Bay Mission had asked the lower courts in the state
to dismiss the city's eminent domain lawsuit to claim land for
the street widening.  Back Bay argued that the city failed to
meet the conditions necessary to take church property and that
the taking would be in violation of the "Restoration of
Religious Freedom Act of 1993."  The lower court ruled that Back
Bay Mission is not "the church" and does not qualify for
protection under that act.  Back Bay Mission then appealed to
the Mississippi Supreme Court.  A hearing on the matter is
slated for 1996.  If the court rules in favor of the mission,
Back Bay could be refunded for land taken by the city.
      Stephens said the state Supreme Court ruling could have
implications for church missions of all denominations throughout
the state and the country.  So far, lower courts have ruled that
a "church" is a building that people go to every Sunday for
worship.  Stephens maintains that "church" is defined by the
actions a faith community takes in its community, as well as how
it worships. 
      The mission does not stand alone in its struggle. 
Stephens said he appreciates the support he has received from
national leaders of the United Church of Christ.  In October,
Cleveland-based church leaders sent a letter to the city's mayor
and council president urging the city to wait for the
Mississippi Supreme Court's decision before taking further
action.  The letter was signed by the Rev. Paul H. Sherry,
president of the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Thomas E.
Dipko, executive vice president of United Church Board for
Homeland Ministries, and the Rev. Bryan W. Sickbert, executive
director of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service
Ministries, all based in Cleveland; and the Rev. David Felton,
interim conference minister of the UCC's regional South Central
Conference, based in Austin, Texas.
      The letter resulted from an action taken by the United
Church's Executive Council in October supporting the mission's
struggle against the city and urging members of the denomination
to do the same.
      The United Church of Christ, with national offices in
Cleveland, is a 1957 union of the Congregational Christian
Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.  Back Bay
Mission is one of 306 United Church-related health-and-welfare
organizations that belong to the UCC's Council for Health and
Human Service Ministries.

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