For One Cowboy Church, Baptizing Near the Broncos Wasn’t So Easy

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) For more than a month, storage items collected dust where an altar once stood inside a Bedford County, Va., barn where a cowboy church had met on Thursday nights.

Local officials had prohibited a fledgling church from holding worship services in the barn due to zoning restrictions relating to public safety. Baptizing where broncos buck, it turns out, isn’t as easy as it might seem.

But after a national conservative law firm stepped in, arguing that the ban was religious discrimination, the Cowboy Church of Virginia won its legal fight and on July 13, worshippers will be able to saddle up and trot to the barn sanctuary about four hours southwest of Washington.

Earlier this year, the Bedford County Department of Buildings sent a notice of violation to Garland Simmons, the owner of the barn where Cowboy Church met, that said the building was zoned for agriculture, not religious assembly.

“If the landowner had decided to permit the barn to be used for a square dance each Wednesday night, there is no question that the county would not have become involved,” Rena Lindevaldsen, attorney for Liberty Counsel, said in a May 10 letter to Bedford County after Simmons received the notice.

In the same letter, Lindevaldsen argued that the use of a barn for a few hours a week for a religious assembly doesn’t change its primary use for agriculture.

For a while, the county wasn’t biting. “If the use (of the building) is changed, it doesn’t matter if it’s three hours a week or 24 hours,” said Bill Hoy, Bedford County spokesperson.

But last week, Bedford County sent a letter to the landowner saying an inspection of the barn had satisfactorily resolved the issue.

Church members, however, remain skeptical.

“We don’t know if it’s a victory yet, we have to find if it has any catches,” said Linda Bell, the wife of Pastor Raymond Bell.

Raymond Bell said the county officials who have kept the church off the property for about six weeks have some explaining to do.

“Bedford County needs to repent before God and their fellow citizens,” he said. “They are accountable for the souls that we’ve lost through this.”

KRE/JL END MENDEZEditors: See main story, RNS-COWBOY-CHURCH, transmitted July 5, 2006.

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