PORT ST. LUCIE A federal judge has upheld the Savanna Club Homeowners Association's ban on worship services, keeping a religious group that has met in a member's backyard for the past year from returning to its previous home at the community's clubhouse.



The Savanna Club Worship Service Inc. had had Sunday services in the clubhouse for years, but the association banned all religious services in 2004 after residents complained of parking and other problems. The religious group accused the association of discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

In an opinion released Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks sided with the homeowners association.



The ban is legal, Middlebrooks said, because the association created it to address legitimate community concerns and enforced it equally against all religious organizations.

"The right to religious freedom must encompass the right to be free from religion," Middlebrooks wrote.

More than 100 people went to hear the case argued in Miami two weeks ago. Homeowners association President William Alsfeld was unavailable for comment, but association attorney Daniel Rosenbaum said board members "felt justice was done."

"The court ruled what we had thought the law was all along," Rosenbaum said. "The board feels vindicated."

Both the Worship Service's two ministers were out of town and unavailable for comment. But Jack Berger, a retired judge and founding member of the worship group, said he was "distressed" and "disappointed." He compared the decision to people "taking Christ out of Christmas." "Now we've got God and church out of the Savanna Club," Berger said. "All these things are a total deterioration of our rights as citizens in a free country. One of these days, it's all going to be gone. ... This is the most horrendous thing I can imagine to happen during the Christmas season."
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