A largely African American church in Trainer filed a federal lawsuit Monday charging the Chichester School District and the Delaware County Board of Assessments with racial discrimination for their efforts to levy taxes on two of the church's buildings.
"We believe we have been targeted," said Pastor Keith Collins of the Church of the Overcomer, who said he had spent more than $100,000 on taxes and legal fees since he opened his church on Sunset Street seven years ago.
Robert T. Vance Jr., lawyer for the church, said he filed the suit Monday with U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.
At issue is not the sanctuary, but two buildings, 1001 and 1010 Sunset, that have been used to house the Mennonite church's social and spiritual ministries. The congregation includes at-risk youth, the homeless, and former convicts and their families.
County officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Stephen Polaha, attorney for Chichester, said allegations that the district acted in a discriminatory manner are "totally unfounded, totally incorrect."
He said other churches own properties that are not tax-exempt, but he did not name any specific examples.
The lawsuit alleges that a right-to-know request from the church to the district did not yield any documents regarding district challenges of the exempt status of other churches' properties.
The suit also charges that 1010 Sunset was tax-exempt when it belonged to a Wesleyan Methodist church, which Collins said was predominantly white, but was not afforded that status when it was purchased by a different African American church and later by Collins.
The Church of the Overcomer successfully appealed a county nonexempt ruling on 1010 Sunset from Delaware County Court, but lost on a subsequent appeal by the school district, Collins said.
On 1001 Sunset, which the church has used to provide transitional housing, the district filed an appeal of a county tax-exempt finding. The church filed a state Human Relations Commission complaint. The complaint was withdrawn when the district said it would drop its appeal, Collins said.
Polaha confirmed the agreement. "It was time to resolve the matter," he said.
At the news conference where the lawsuit was announced were several congregation members who have benefited from the church's ministries.
Julianne McDonald, 23, said she met Collins and his wife, Carolyn, when she was in foster care. With their support, she graduated from Cabrini College and plans to be a social worker.
"For me, the ministry changed my life in ways that words can't express," McDonald said.