Married couple William and Alex Pritts wanted to hold a concert on their 147 wooded acres in Bullskin Township, near Pittsburgh, but the local zoning commission insisted their land could not be used for commercial purposes. Undeterred, the Prittses founded the Universal Church of Love and Music -- a church that operates remarkably like a concert venue.
The "music church" is an amphitheater that welcomes bluegrass, rock, and jazz talent like the Zen Tricksters and the Jazz Mandolin Project. Churchgoers gain entrance by offering a $40 donation. "We're operating our church out of a strong belief that we have the right to be doing this, and that the zoning commission is violating our constitutional rights," Alex Pritts says.
The zoning commission is not amused. The couple was originally refused a zoning permit on the grounds that they live in "a very rural community, and the best use of [the Prittses'] land is agricultural," says Fayette County Zoning Director Tammy Shell. "We've posted several cease-and-desist orders on the property, and we will continue to do so."
The Prittses maintain that the cease-and-desist order cannot apply to a religious organization. Prior to founding the church, they battled the zoning commission for three years, taking extensive measures such as building roads, hiring a professional to do sound tests, and conducting traffic studies in an effort to comply. But the zoning commission kept presenting new barriers.
Shell vows the zoning commission will continue to pursue fines for violating the cease-and-desist order. William will have to appear in court to defend church activities, such as July's "Freedom Festival," which featured 18 bands and more than 800 guests.
"People loved it," Alex says. "People told me that it was the first time they felt as if they really belonged in a church."