The Church On Trial

The Church of Universal Love and Music in Acme, Pa., is having its day in court, trying to convince a jury it’s a church and not a music venue.

The church, which promotes concerts as worship services, wants to convince a U.S. District Court jury that a drug raid at one of its music festivals in 2009 was an unreasonable search spurred by overzealous county officials.

“This is about a 10-year consistent campaign by Fayette County to shut down the church,” said Gregory Koerner, the church’s attorney.

Photo: AP Photo / Gene J. Puskar
Pritts leaves a federal courthouse in Pittsburgh. 

The church needs to convince the jury “Funk Fest” was an expression of “sincerely held” religious beliefs and not just 400 people having fun. The beef began in 2001 when William Pritts, a feed store owner who owned 147 acres south of Pittsburgh, was fined for holding events on his property. Neighbors had complained about his weekend concerts, which drew acts like Parliament Funkadelic.

Pritts asked for a zoning exemption for music, fundraising and religious events. Pritts was later fined for violating a court-ordered compromise that limited the number of concerts. He filed a $1 million federal lawsuit in 2006, claiming his right to religious expression was violated. Pritts had filed for an IRS tax exemption because he was a church raising money for charity, but the county noted he charged admission rather than taking donations and said Pritts didn’t claim he was a church until he was denied a request to build an amphitheatre on his property.

Whatever the decision, there will be no more celebrations at the property. “The church has been destroyed,” Koerner said. “If we get some money, he’s going to relocate to another county.”