CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Late-night dance parties at a downtown Chattanooga church were halted Friday by a judge just days after nine people were shot leaving a gathering early Christmas morning.
The pastor of the non-denominational Christian church, Mosaic, has said the dance parties are an essential part of the ministry. The city maintains they are a dangerous nuisance and asked a judge to shut them down.
Judge Jeff Hollingsworth granted a 15-day restraining order that includes strict limits on the number of people who can be in the church's space and the hours it can operate.
"We're still allowed to do what they deem as respectable worship services, but we can't do any outreach or mission," Mosiac pastor Tim Reid said. "We definitely question the constitutionality of them telling us how we can worship, what is considered the right way to worship by the government. It'd be different if something illegal were happening."
City Attorney Phil Noblett would not directly address Reid's assertions, saying he did not want to discuss things that might be presented in court at a later date. But he added, "Some of the activities I've observed are not church activities."
Chattanooga police have responded to at least 19 assault calls involving the church-sponsored parties, called Fathom, over the past five years, including a rape and two other shootings, according to the city's court complaint.
Reid said his ministry may be unorthodox, but it reaches a population that many churches don't even try to minister to, including gangs. He said many of the worshippers who attend Mosaic's services on Sunday and Wednesday evening first came to Fathom, including the associate pastor.
"We have a gang problem here in Chattanooga," he said. "Our church has developed a relationship with a lot of these gangs. We're in the trenches, helping young men come out of this lifestyle."
Defense attorney David Moss said at Friday's hearing that he believes the city does not have the right to shut down the Mosaic-sponsored events, but he agreed to the temporary restraining order because a surprise inspection by the fire marshal on Thursday would make fighting the order pointless for the time being.
Reid said he was told by the fire marshal that the church is in violation of several fire codes and cannot allow more than 100 people in the building at a time. Among the problems cited were not enough toilets and not enough exits.
"We've been there almost 10 years and passed inspection every year, including this summer," Reid said. "For some reason now they've found all of these things, including telling us we need almost 30 toilets."
Calls to the fire marshal's office on Friday were not returned.
The restraining order allows "structured worship services" and small group meetings for things like Bible study, as long as they conform to the fire marshal's orders and are over by 9 p.m. It specifically disallows alcoholic beverages on the premises except sacramental wine used during Sunday worship.
Reid said he plans to hold multiple services to accommodate the church's 200 to 300 regular worshippers.
Noblett would not say what restrictions the city would seek when the order expires.