BEDFORD, Va. — A conservative legal organization is stepping into the fray over a so-called cowboy church that had conducted religious services for farmers, rodeo enthusiasts and others who had conflicts with Sunday services.
In April, a Bedford County building official accused Garland Simmons of violating zoning and safety codes by conducting the cowboy church in his barn in Moneta.
Now, the Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit based in Orlando, Fla., has said it will argue on the church's behalf.
Rena Lindevaldsen, an attorney with the Liberty Counsel, said the county's complaint against Simmons is at odds with the constitutional rights of freedom of assembly and religious practices.
If county officials do not agree to let the cowboy church hold services at the barn without interference, Liberty Counsel will likely file suit against the county, Lindevaldsen said.
Though Simmons didn't appeal the county's violation notice, his attorney, Steven Wandrei, wrote to the county:
"Mr. Simmons will continue to make his barn available for use by the cowboy church. However, any further action in regards to the Notice of Violation will be the sole responsibility of the church."
"I assumed this issue was resolved," Bedford County Attorney Carl Boggess told The Roanoke Times when told of Liberty Counsel's interest.
Lindevaldsen argued that the county was incorrectly applying state law because farm buildings are exempt from safety codes.
"We're saying, "Look, it's a farm building. It's not subject to your zoning code,'" Lindevaldsen said. "The state code is just fine."
A newspaper report earlier this year about a cowboy church in Wytheville said pastor Raymond Bell conducted a weekly worship service in a stockyard building at the Wythe County Livestock Exchange.
"These are people who can't go to church on Sunday or won't go to church on Sunday," Bell told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "They feel they're being looked down on if they come in bib overalls."
Bell, a land surveyor, started the Wytheville Cowboy Church of Virginia last year at the stockyard in the middle of Wythe's hayfields and cow pastures. His aim was to attract ranchers, farmers, farmhands and horse riders, aware that their Sundays are often devoted to livestock and land, not the liturgy.