A congregation seeking to establish a church in town has filed a federal lawsuit alleging “discriminatory and arbitrary treatment” on the part of local officials that left the mostly African American worshippers “angered, humiliated, and rejected.”
The 18-page complaint – filed on behalf of King’s Tabernacle Church, its congregation, and its pastor, the Rev. Dr. Chris Abhulime – seeks immediate relief to use the former Belknap Community Church at 500 Greenville Ave. as a place of worship, along with attorney’s fees and unspecified compensatory damages.
It further challenges what it describes as the town’s “discriminatory zoning code which freely permits non-religious assemblies, like theaters and concert halls, at the Church’s property but does not freely permit religious assembly.”
Named as defendants are the town, Building Official Bernard “Ben” Nascenzi, and “John/Jane Does 1-10” – described as “municipal officials, employees, independent contractors of the Town or individuals who, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of the Church’s clearly established federal rights or conspired to cause such deprivation.”
“Defendants Nascenzi and John/Jane Does 1-10 knew or should have known that their actions violated the Church’s clearly established federal rights,” the suit states.
Representing the church are Mauck & Baker LLC – a Chicago law firm specializing in religious land use cases – and Warwick attorney Andrew J. McKay.
“This is 2016. This is the United States of America. This type of government behavior is outrageous and should have been corrected immediately,” Abhulime said through a press release announcing the suit.
“We can all agree that there is no place for religious or racial discrimination in America. Our country’s guarantee that everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law trumps a municipality’s interest in tax revenue and certainly the racial prejudices of a zoning official,” Mauck & Baker attorney Noel W. Sterett said through the release. “It is well past time for Johnston to make things right and we hope they will. If they do not, we are confident that the court will.”
On Tuesday, Mayor Joseph Polisena said he was surprised and disappointed to learn of the legal action, and that the town had been working to address and rectify the situation. He said the town is now working on its response to the complaint.
“Quite frankly, I was shocked that they filed a federal lawsuit, because my town solicitor was working with their attorney to move forward in the confines of the zoning and state ordinances,” he said.
“We’re going to defend ourselves. I just feel that, when all of the facts come out, I feel that the town will be exonerated when it comes to being racist,” the mayor added. “We welcome diversity. In my opinion, and this is my mantra, the more diverse a community is, the more that community thrives.”
The complaint points to a pair of key episodes as having led to the legal action – the Zoning Board of Review’s denial of a special-use permit for the use of the Greenville Avenue location as a church, and Nascenzi’s use of racially charged language in a recorded conference call that garnered media attention. The press release indicates the church moved forward with the suit due to the amount of time it was taking to resolve the matter.
In April 2015, Providence-based King’s Tabernacle contracted with Belknap Community Church to purchase the Greenville Avenue building for $75,000, and closed on the property July 17.
According to the minutes of zoning board’s meeting on June 25, 2015, a special-use permit was petitioned by attorney Frank Manni, who explained that his client would like to occupy the vacant property as a church, continuing the site’s 124-year tradition. He stated that remodeling projects both inside and out, including a handicap-accessible ramp and a parking lot, were planned. He further indicated that if the variance were approved, the church would hold about 10 to 15 people during the week and about 15 to 20 people on Sundays.
According to the minutes, a motion was then made by the board to close the public hearing, and a vote was taken with all members in favor of denying the request for the permit. The church appealed the denial in Superior Court, and those proceedings are still pending.
The church’s complaint asserts the special-use permit requirement was unlawful, given the prior use of the site as a church. It also points to the denial of the permit without any questions being asked, and to other places of worship in town that were not required to obtain a special-use approval.
The complaint also asserts that, since the zoning board’s decision, the church has suffered a financial burden from permit applications and lawyer fees; members have left the church, and its growth has been stunted; specific ministry opportunities have been lost; and the church has lost its momentum in ministering to the residents of Johnston.
Nascenzi’s controversial comments – which were recorded by the church’s contractor – first came to light via a GoLocalProv report on Sept. 18. Nascenzi is heard on the recording referring to Abhulime as the “[expletive] black owner” of the church.
Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP’s Providence branch, was among those who spoke out after the comments became public.
“We had recommended that [Nascenzi] be terminated, we thought what happened was egregious,” Vincent said. “However, this is the mayor’s call. The mayor has to be responsible for his employees. He has to make a decision on the punishment he feels is most appropriate.”
Polisena on Monday said Nascenzi will be suspended for 30 days, without pay, beginning Feb. 1. Nascenzi will also take sensitivity training, the mayor said.
“We’re not looking to terminate Ben … It took a while for us to move forward because we had to let the chief of staff look at all the issues at zoning, all the notes and so forth, and he had to call Ben in for a pre-disciplinary hearing to get his side of the story,” Polisena said.
In a letter dated Dec. 29, 2015, Nascenzi wrote to Polisena offering his “sincerest apologies to you, my fellow Town employees, and most importantly, the citizens of the Town of Johnston regarding the regretful words I used” during the recorded conference call.
“By way of explanation and not excuse, I was in the midst of a very stressful personal situation, and I was simply caught off guard by the telephone conversation on that day. I let my emotions get the better of me, and unfortunately my personal stress became displaced,” he wrote.
Nascenzi goes on to state that he takes pride in his position as a building official, and that he strives to apply town ordinances and state laws equally in an effort to ensure safety.
“My hope is that I am able to repair the working relationship with the Reverend Dr. Chris Abhulime and the members of King’s Tabernacle Church so that we can all ensure that the church located at 500 Greenville Avenue is a safe place for everyone to gather, and reinforce that the Town of Johnston is welcoming to all,” he continued.
Vincent said he hopes the situation can reach a positive conclusion.
“I’m glad the mayor did something, because something had to happen for the town to move forward in a positive way,” he said. “I would like to see the pastor, Chris, and his congregation in that location in Johnston, and anything that can happen to make that happen, I’m in favor of. If the town and church can get together so that the church can be in that location and open their doors to everyone and have harmony, that’s what I’d like to see.”
According to Polisena, when he first heard the recording of Nascenzi’s comments, he called Abhulime to schedule a meeting for the next day. Just prior to the meeting, however, Polisena said the pastor cancelled, stating he wasn’t going to make the meeting without his lawyer present.
“I don’t condone racism at all. What he said, his comments, might appear to be racist in nature, but that’s not Ben. Ben Nacensi is not a racist, not at all,” Polisena said. “He said some stuff that quite frankly he shouldn’t have said.”
Referring to the zoning board a quasi-judicial board that he does not appoint, Polisena said he typically does not get involved in the zoning matters. He also stated that the town’s lawyer, William Conley, had been previously instructed to meet with the church to see what the town could do to help while ensuring the organization followed zoning guidelines.
“I think the crux the issue is the zoning, it’s a zoning issue,” said the mayor, who indicated there were ongoing safety issues with the structure on the property “The building inspector was following all the laws that we have to the letter of the law.”
The mayor estimates that there are six or seven minority churches or places of worship in Johnston, and said the town has a solid record of being inclusive.
“We welcome them with open arms; no one has ever had a problem. My administration, we’re not prejudiced in any way. We have never, ever violated anybody’s civil rights. No way, that’s not the way I was brought up,” he said.
Polisena said he also hopes an amicable solution between all parties may be found outside the courtroom.
“The reverend, I wish I could meet him, he seems like a very nice guy. But he hasn’t called me,” he said. “If the reverend still wants to come in and talk with me, I’d love to sit down and talk with him. He’s a man of God, he’s a man of the cloth. I’m hoping that he finds it in his heart to forgive Ben Nascenzi for his comments.”