The Mars Hill Orange County Discrimination Narrative: The Rest of the Story?

In June 2012, Mark Driscoll told the media and his church that Mars Hill Orange County might be the victim of religious discrimination because the city of Santa Ana said the church was in violation of the city’s zoning ordinance. According to the OC Weekly via a Mars Hill video, the church was lawyering up:

Driscoll said the church has hired lawyers to look into the matter, and “if we do find that we’re just getting bullied by a political discriminatory agenda against Christianity and the church, we’ll hold our ground. If we find out as well that it’s just somebody on a council somewhere with an axe to grind against Christianity, we’ll hold our ground.

The May update and June 2012 video of Driscoll telling the congregation about the matter has been removed from the Mars Hill website and is now private on You Tube (the update from Mars Hill Orange County lead pastor Nick Bogardus is on the Internet Archive).

Now the Executive Pastor of Mars Hill Orange County at the time Kyle Firstenberg claims that he had made Mars Hill leaders aware of the zoning problem months prior to the June article.

Several months after being sent down to Orange County to help launch the OC location of Mars Hill as the Executive Pastor, I identified a new location for the church to meet. It was at a night club called the Galaxy Theater. Shortly after we began meeting there, I discovered that the City of Santa Ana prohibits churches from meeting in that part of the city, regardless of the building. I notified Pastor Sutton and the Development Team of my findings and suggested we start planning for a move. I was told by Pastor Sutton that we were not going to move because we had no place to go, even though we could move back to the building we were using months before.

I began searching for another place to meet and discovered a comparable venue to the Galaxy Theater. I notified Pastor Sutton and the Development Team and was told that we didn’t want to lose momentum and growth by moving and that we were not going to move until the city kicked us out. Sutton said the city wouldn’t do that because they don’t want the bad PR of kicking out a church that is trying to make a difference. I made it very clear to Pastor Sutton and the Development Team that I was not OK with staying, as we were breaking the law. The decision was made and I was advised to not challenge it.

A short time later I discovered that we as a church needed to have a business license in the city of Santa Ana to operate legally as we had separate office space in the city. I completed the paperwork and advised Pastor Sutton and the Development Team that I would be submitting the application. I was told not to submit it because it would draw attention to us and they would discover that we had not moved as instructed by the certified letters that we had received from the city. The decision was made and I was advised to submit to my leaders. I challenged that decision along with the previous decisions that our very actions were disqualifying us from pastoring this church, not to mention the non-Christian landlord we were trying to be a witness to was encouraged to participate with us in our defiance of the law.

I continued to raise my concerns on a weekly basis for several months as the city continued to send certified letters to cease and desist and started fining us. As a previous law enforcement officer and a pastor of Jesus’ church, I had extreme ethical issues with these decisions and my name was on all official documents for the Orange County location. At that time, I requested that my name be removed from all official church documents with the city, as I did not want my name associated with this civil crime.

I also continued to provide alternative meeting locations that were turned down. Some months later, as the City of Santa Ana increased its fines, the decision was made to plan for a move. Sutton then removed me as the lead overseeing the property search and told me it was because I was not all in and not available 24/7. I believe this occurred because of my vocal push back to our breaking the law and continued pushing for us to make a move. I stepped aside and assisted where I could.

The Firstenbergs left Mars Hill OC in mid-2012 about the time the religious discrimination theory was being floated to the media. Eventually, the church moved as fines were being paid to the city for being out of compliance with the ordinance.

Firstenberg raises some extremely troubling questions for the leadership of Mars Hill. According to Firstenberg, the leadership of Mars Hill knew the venue was not zoned for a church long before Driscoll commented about it to the church and media. If Mark Driscoll really did not know what the problem was then who is responsible for that? If he did know, then why tell the media/church that he didn’t understand. One may disagree with an ordinance, but that is a different matter than not knowing the problem.  The picture painted by Firstenberg is that Mars Hill leaders knew the OC church was out of compliance, ordered subordinates to continue in non-compliance, willingly paid fines using church money, and then appeared to distract attention by raising the possibility of religious discrimination.

I would be happy to provide any alternative explanation or facts that Mars Hill might provide.

Update: Kyle Firstenberg provided me with an email which supports his claim that the Executive Elders of Mars Hill knew the situation with the Orange County property around the same time as Mark Driscoll was telling the media and MHC that the situation might be religious discrimination.

From:
Date: Friday, June 1, 2012 9:25 AM
To: “kyle@marshill.com” <kyle@marshill.com>
Subject: Woodbridge

Kyle

Sutton would rather us keep looking, and meet in a park if need be, than have only an afternoon time slot.  It sounds like this is the opinion of all 3 EE, no just Pastor Sutton.  I pulled the plug on the LOI.  We’ll keep focusing our efforts on other options.

The correspondent here was a person in charge of handling properties at Mars Hill. Firstenberg had provided numerous other possible sites and then in this one about a particular venue, the answer was still no. Firstenberg’s impression from this communication was that all three Executive Elders were agreed.

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