'Victory for religious freedom': Georgia church won't face fines for evangelistic outreach


FAYETTEVILLE, Ga. — A local official has backed off threats to fine Flat Creek Baptist Church for hosting an evangelistic outreach that he claimed violated zoning regulations.

The outreach involved a car show that attracted more than 1,200 people to Flat Creek Baptist Church on Saturday.

Fayette County manager Steve Rapson notified church leaders in a letter Monday that he had decided not to levy a fine.

Instead, the church received a warning that it had violated a conditional use provision in local zoning regulations.

“There are no fines associated with this warning of violation,” Rapson wrote.

Rapson also said in the letter that his staff is reviewing zoning regulations and may recommend that county commissioners revise the conditional use provision that impacted the church.

More than 100 vintage and classic automobiles were spread across the Flat Creek Baptist Church campus on Saturday in defiance of Rapson’s threats to levy a hefty fine if the congregation didn’t cancel a car show.

“We’re not doing this in a spirit of rebellion,” said Pastor Josh Saefkow, standing amid hundreds of car enthusiasts and church members on Saturday. “We’re doing this out of a commitment to Christ because there are people in this parking lot right now who are broken and in need of a Savior. That’s why we’re doing this event, to point men, women, boys, and girls to Jesus.”

Saefkow, president of the 1.2 million-member Georgia Baptist Convention, vowed that his church would not be bullied. His church had planned to contest any fine if county officials had followed through on the threat, saying the First Amendment forbids government from infringing on religious freedoms.

“It’s definitely a First Amendment issue, and it’s certainly also a Biblical issue,” Saefkow said. “All the churches in Georgia should be paying attention to what’s happening here, because, if government can tell us when it’s acceptable to meet, that’s a problem for all churches.”

In the days leading up the car show, Rapson had warned the church not to go ahead with the event.

“If they have a car show, they will be fined,” he told The Fayetteville Citizen.

Rapson’s threat was a marketing boon for the church, more than doubling attendance over last year’s event.

Mike Griffin, public affairs representative for the Georgia Baptist Mission, had been closely following the Flat Creek matter and said the outcome is "a clear victory for religious freedom."

“I have a lot of respect for Josh Saefkow and his willingness to be engaged in the public square and to defend religious freedom wherever necessary,” Griffin said. “He and his church serve as an example for other churches to follow."