Owner of former Heritage USA ‘sacred tower’ sues York County over religious freedom

MorningStar Fellowship Church has sued York County and two former county leaders, claiming civil rights violations related to religious freedom over the church’s efforts to protect Heritage Tower near Fort Mill.

MorningStar, which owns the tower that was part of the former Heritage USA, filed the suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Rock Hill, alleging “hostile and discriminatory conduct” by the county.

The suit asks for a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against York County, prohibiting it from “taking any action whatsoever to attempt to destroy” the 21-story Heritage Tower.

The suit alleges the county forced MorningStar to sign development agreements designed to put MorningStar in default and give cause to tear down the tower.

Efforts to obtain comments from MorningStar earlier this week were unsuccessful. York County hadn’t received the filing and did not have a comment, according to its clerk to council.

Former York County Council Chairman Houston “Buddy” Motz and former county manager Jim Baker are named as defendants in the suit.

The tower

The 21-story tower is a holdover from Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s former Heritage USA property. Construction began but was never finished in the 1980s, with the Bakkers leaving in 1988 amid a sex and money scandal.

At its height, an estimated 6 million people came to PTL (Praise The Lord), a Christian theme park and religious resort near Fort Mill. It was the third most popular destination in the country, after Disney World and Disneyland.

Jim Bakker resigned abruptly in 1987 amid sexual and financial scandal. Bakker was accused of paying hush money to a church secretary after a relationship with her. He later served almost five years in federal prison for fraud.

Tower construction was part of the legal issue that caught up with Bakker. He was charged with overselling memberships to the tower, convicted in 1989 in district court in Charlotte and sentenced to 45 years in prison, according to Wednesday’s suit filing. The sentence was later reduced.

The tower, with more than 500 rooms, was the only property left unfinished when Bakker resigned.

MorningStar bought the property with plans to convert the hotel into a $40 million complex with 200 apartments for seniors, a fitness center and pool.

MorningStar is an evangelical Christian nonprofit that publishes books in 50 languages, runs an Internet protocol television network called MorningStar TV, and hosts Christian conferences at the Fort Mill site. MorningStar still wants to complete the tower and have seniors live there.

The tower was valued at almost $12 million in 2008, according to the suit.

Engineering reports from 2005 to 2007 showed the tower was structurally sound and capable of completion, MorningStar says. Another report from spring 2018 confirmed it, according to the suit.

The property had several owners between Jim Bakker’s resignation and 2004, when it was divided among several developers. The site was dormant from 1997 to 2004. MorningStar purchased 52 acres including the Heritage Grand Hotel and Conference Center. That property includes the tower.

Anti-religious tone

The lawsuit filed early this week refers to an email from Motz to Baker and other county leaders. There were references to MorningStar being “in the same mode as the old PTL, and just as scheming,” and “only out to fleece the investors of the units and bilk them for every dime they can get.” The suit also refers to an email from Baker to other county leaders about the need to “take a strong stance” against MorningStar.

The suit alleges that the “strident and aggressive anti-religious tone” in those messages is part of a larger plan to get rid of the tower. The 96-page filing is filled with Bible verses and statements about how work on the tower is an act of worship and has “a divine sacred purpose.” It often refers to the site as a “sacred tower.”

According to the lawsuit, MorningStar spent about $15 million renovating the hotel and conference center, which is part of the same property as the tower.

MorningStar received its certificate of occupancy for the grand hotel portion of the property in 2004. A county-mandated development agreement, according to the suit, was signed Jan. 13, 2008. It had a five-year term. The suit alleges the county wouldn’t allow work on the tower without another signed agreement giving the county the ability to tear down the tower if conditions weren’t met.

MorningStar spent $1.2 million on engineering and development, according to the suit. A site plan was submitted in the fall of 2008. The church contends the county wasn’t cooperative in approving plans or issuing construction permits, and on March 5, 2010, the county announced that MorningStar was in default. The church filed a lawsuit against the county on Jan. 24, 2013. The county countered two months later.

In summer 2010, MorningStar requested a “mutual stand down” of ongoing litigation removing the default status from the property. MorningStar says an agreement with the county was reached in mediation, but was voted down by the York County Council, including members who participated in the mediation.

MorningStar alleges in its most recent lawsuit that the county wouldn’t allow “even basic, routine permits” for maintenance as recently as this spring. The county’s true motives are “to destroy a sacred religious property and a place of future worship,” according to the suit.

The suit also points to two other 2008 development agreements between the county and private developers. Neither involved a church. Neither involved stipulations where property could be destroyed by the county, according to the suit. MorningStar has “not received equal treatment, nor has it received equal protection of law” compared to other developers and has experienced “individually-targeted discrimination,” according to the lawsuit.

MorningStar was “well on its way” to finishing the tower when the county violated its agreement, the suit says. According to the lawsuit, that put the project in default and kept it from getting financing.

MorningStar contends the county’s unwillingness to issue permits and larger plan to keep the tower from completion violates the South Carolina Religious Freedom Act.

John Marks: jmarks@fortmilltimes.com; @JohnFMTimes
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