Fayette hauls Flat Creek Baptist pastor into court for car show

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Georgia Baptist Convention President Josh Saefkow speaks to member of the Executive Committee in 2023. He is emphasizing the need for churches to focus on preparing the next generation of church leaders at the annual meeting Nov. 12-14. Photo/Index/Roger Alford.
Georgia Baptist Convention President Josh Saefkow speaks to members of the Executive Committee in 2023. He is emphasizing the need for churches to focus on preparing the next generation of church leaders at the annual meeting Nov. 12-14. Photo/Index/Roger Alford.

It’s likely a Fayette County first: A county marshal ordered a church pastor to appear before a judge to answer for a publicly advertised car show held during daylight hours entirely within the church property June 1.

Pastor Josh Saefkow faces a possible fine of up to $1,000 and up to 60 days in the county jail for allowing a combined car and craft show to be held on the campus of Flat Creek Baptist Church on Saturday, June 1.

Saefkow said the church is within its First Amendment rights to assemble and participate in such a gospel outreach program as a craft show and displays of parked cars. Saefkow is the current president of the Georgia Baptist Association. There was no entrance fee for either vehicles or people, and the church made no money on the event, the pastor said.

County Administrator Steve Rapson said Monday that the citation was triggered by the name: Car show. ”If they had simply said it was a ‘church event,’ the ordinance would not have been triggered and no citation would have been issued. But they insisted on calling it a car show, which under the ordinance requires a $30 permit.”

This year’s car show featured over 100 vehicles on display with over 900 people in attendance, Saefkow told The Citizen. The church has hosted up to 1,100 concert attendees. Several thousand high school choir members have shuttled through the church parking lot over a period of several days, he noted.

Prior outdoor events have brought over 1,000 people in attendance.

Rapson made the fine threat a year ago before the show and made good on his promise last week. Saefkow was ordered to appear before State Court Judge Jason B. Thompson Aug. 15. The pastor invited the congregation and choir to attend the hearing in Courtroom 2-D at 1 Center Drive in Fayetteville.

Chief Marshal Lem Miller, who served the citation on the pastor, said in his 24 years with the Marshal’s office, he could not recall any county zoning ordinance violation resulting in any jail time.

“They did not apply for a conditional use permit,” said Planning and Zoning Director Deborah Bell Monday. The Zoning Department let the county marshal know and a citation was issued, she said.

Unlike a violation for a building permit — many of which are resolved before court — “this was an event, not a building. We can’t issue a permit for an event after the event has occurred,” Bell said.

“Flat Creek Baptist Church’s purpose is to evangelize the lost and to disciple the Christ follower,” Saefkow said in a written statement to The Citizen. “All it does (including a car show) is to fulfill this God-given task.

“Since our purpose is, by definition, a religious purpose, the Government (federal, state, county, or city) cannot restrict any reasonable religious activity without an overriding compelling interest. We do not see a ‘permit’ as such an interest and plan to contest this decision from our commissioners,” Saefkow said.

Opposing the church’s position are three county commissioners — Charles Oddo, Edward Gibbons and Charles Rousseau — according to Fayette State Senator Marty Harbin, a member of Flat Creek Baptist, a 198-year-old church located on Flat Creek Trail just north of Peachtree City.

Supporting the church are commissioners Eric Maxwell and Lee Hearn, Harbin said in a letter. (https://thecitizen.com/2024/05/13/sen-harbin-reports-3-commissioners-against-churchs-car-show-oddo-gibbons-rousseau/)

According to the county ordinance, “The citation for the alleged violation shall be heard in the state court of the county. The court shall give the person a full opportunity to be heard and, if the defendant is adjudged to be guilty, the court shall determine the extent and nature of the violation and the appropriate penalty.

“… A person convicted of a violation of this Code shall be punished by a fine not exceeding $1,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding 60 days, or any combination thereof.”

The June 1 car and craft show was the third in as many years.

Here are links to previous stories on this subject;

https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/02/flat-creek-baptist-faces-1000-county-fine-for-saturday-car-craft-show/

https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/05/church-car-show-a-success-despite-threat-of-county-penalty/

https://thecitizen.com/2023/06/05/no-fines-for-flat-creek-baptist-car-show/

— FULL DISCLOSURE – The writer, Cal Beverly, is a member of Flat Creek Baptist Church.

Pastor Josh Saefkow (L, with blue baseball cap) talks with Fayette County Sheriff Barry Babb during the church's car and craft show in June 2023 at the church on Flat Creek Trail. Photo/Roger Alford.
Pastor Josh Saefkow (L, with blue baseball cap) talks with Fayette County Sheriff Barry Babb during the church’s car and craft show in June 2023 at the church on Flat Creek Trail. Photo/Roger Alford.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I think the participants used the city streets rather than their angel wings to get to Flat Creek Trail. This citizen of that neighborhood was inconvenienced by the traffic. Josh, you should have paid the thirty bucks.

  2. I’m sorry, but this immediately fails the legal and religious sniff test.

    Legally, churches are not immune to religious-neutral laws. If the County requires a permit for any “car show,” then being a church is no exception. In fact, if they DID except churches, that would be an establishment clause violation. Are churches to be immune from building codes too? What about drug laws? Plenty of religions include the use of hallucinogens. Are they to be exempt from criminal prosecution too?

    From a religious perspective, see Matthew 17:24-27 (“but so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours”) and Romans 13:1-7 (“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves”)

  3. If there were an honest God, this Pharisee would spend 2 months in jail for his impertinence. He’s so much better than Jesus and St. Paul that he doesn’t have to obey the law.

    Alas, white guys in suits rarely suffer any legal consequences, so he’ll falsely get to whine about his persecution merely because he was asked to do what everyone else is asked to do – no more, no less. What a martyr!

  4. This is an interesting situation. Given the traditional separation between church and state, will there be a mutual recognition between the two? Between gentlemen, this shouldn’t happen. But now with the internet and online news, we may not see a settlement before a summary judgment.