Mission Battles Casino over Land

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Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Mississippi, is locked in a battle with what will be the state's largest casino over compensation for the demolition of five of the mission's eight buildings.

Casino tycoon Ralph Engelstad wanted 19,605 square feet of the 1.8-acre property to widen two streets and make a grand entry for the casino, which, when built, will be the tallest building in Mississippi. The Gulf port city granted his request in May by filing an eminent domain lawsuit.

The United Church of Christ mission unsuccessfully sought protection under 1993's federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. An appeal is pending before the Mississippi Supreme Court.

"The real issue here is what constitutes a church," says David E. Stephens, executive director of the mission. "Is it solely a place with weekly worship services, or an ongoing ministry?" The mission formerly conducted worship services, but now focuses on food and medical care for the poor and homeless.

The city began demolishing portions of five mission buildings in December. In August, a jury awarded the mission $514,000 compensation for the seized land, but Stephens says that does not cover half the amount needed to rebuild. The mission likely will stay on the remaining land. Stephens says a move would be too costly.

"We've taken a pretty good hit, but we're going to stay and fight," Stephens says.

He figures the mission's run-down structures will keep some customers away from the sparkling new casino.

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