Wiccans may be free to worship

Compromise nears between county, church

A compromise between Santa Rosa County and a local Wiccan church might be near.

It could allow church members to worship in a residential area and defuse a potential religious freedom dispute.

County Commissioners are scheduled to hear an appeal from the church over a denied permit at 6 tonight. The Zoning Board of Adjustments denied a conditional-use permit request by the church in November to allow a place of worship in a residential area.

Commissioners could decide a conditional-use permit is not required for the church to conduct its meetings, which church officials describe as little more than get-togethers with outdoor worship.

“I think it’s going to work itself out,” Chairman Don Salter said.

The Rev. William E. Livingston of the Fire Dance Church of Wicca said he was notified in August that he needed a conditional-use permit to operate a place of worship in a residential area. He said occasional gatherings had taken place at his home on Shell Road, east of Milton, for 18 months without any problem.

But then neighbors started to complain.

Livingston suggested a compromise to commissioners, saying his house doesn’t qualify as a place of worship as defined by county code. The home is in his name, not in the name of the church, and prayer sessions are conducted in the back yard. That means he shouldn’t have to request a conditional use for a place of worship in a residential area, he said.

“It’s the same as if I had a party on Friday night,” Livingston said. “And we only meet eight times a year.”

Livingston said a Christian church wouldn’t have encountered as much resistance as his church has.

Salter and Commissioner Robert Hilliard say it’s not an issue of religion.

“In my mind, religion never entered into the equation,” said Hilliard, whose district includes the neighborhood where church members meet. “Apparently, they don’t need a conditional use to continue doing what they were doing.”

Livingston applied for the conditional use, but the county’s Zoning Board of Adjustments denied the request at a packed meeting.

Many who attended the November meeting complained about the traffic Livingston’s meetings created and denied it was about Livingston’s religion. However, cheers erupted and one man held up a Bible and pointed to it after the vote.

Even if a conditional-use permit isn’t required, traffic and noise still can be controlled by county ordinances, County Attorney Tom Dannheisser said.

Another appeal commissioners face is the approval of a rezoning request to allow high-rise condominiums in Navarre, which would be the first of their type on the county’s mainland. The proposal has much opposition. The Local Planning Board approved the request in November.

“That’s probably going to be the major issue come Monday night,” Salter said.

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