A Washington-area megachurch filed a federal lawsuit July 3 challenging a government ruling that it was improperly holding seminary-level classes on church grounds.

The nondenominational McLean Bible Church, which draws about 9,500 worshipers weekly to its services in Fairfax County, Virginia, partnered with Capitol Bible Seminary in 2001 to offer Bible study and religious ministry classes. The church did not issue academic credit or confer degrees. But students were allowed to take classes at the church for credit toward a master's degree in biblical studies and theology from the seminary.

Three years after the classes began, Fairfax County officials determined they went beyond those of a typical Sunday school. The county said McLean would need to apply for zoning status as a college or university, which the church wished to avoid.

Colby May, an American Center for Law and Justice attorney handling the case, said McLean filed the lawsuit after exhausting all administrative remedies with the county. May said the church was willing to change procedural aspects of the program, but not the curriculum. He said Fairfax County had authorized McLean to hold the classes, based on a special-use permit issued by the county in 1999. According to May, the permit says "church facilities shall only be made available for use by groups or activities which are sponsored by the church and are consistent with its ministry objectives."

The church's suit claims that Fairfax County's actions violate its constitutional rights to religious free exercise, as well as freedom of speech and association. A public relations representative from Fairfax County, which has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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