Published September 19, 2008
PITTSBURGH – A Pennsylvania couple is fighting to maintain a church they run from a Huntingdon Township home, which officials say is really a raunchy swingers club where single men have to pay for access but women come for free.
John and Kim Ondrik say they worship nature at the Church for Spiritual Humanism. But midnight mass at the Spiritual Palace is on hold as the Rev. John and his wife fight for a variance to continue practicing their religion in a residential area just outside of Pittsburgh.
Opponents of his church, including neighbors and North Huntingdon Township officials, say what's really behind those closed doors is a club called the "Swinger's Palace."
Township commissioner Richard Gray said it's been an open secret that a swingers club has operated out of the two-story house since the 1970s, but they finally have the evidence to shut it down.
Gray said the dispute is not about church or sex — it's about having a business operating in a residentially zoned area.
"The mere fact that they were charging a mandatory fee to get in, in my opinion, would constitute a business," he said.
An attorney representing John Ondrik told FOX News that members in the private church give a donation and aren't charged to get inside the midnight masses, which typically take place on Friday and Saturday nights.
"You have a right to run a church in a residential area not because of your free exercise rights under the Constitution, but simply because churches are not primarily commercial," said Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University.
Ledewitz said the Ondriks might have a case if they can convince authorities they're sincere about their religion and that they truly believe in their church.
But keeping the Palace open might be a tough sell. Its Web site, which was recently taken offline, showed that couples were charged an admission of $50 while single men had to pay $75. Single women could attend free of charge.
Self-described swinger "Dave" said he and his partner paid money to get into the club.
"You didn't get in without paying money. If you didn't pay your money you were going back out the door."
Dave has offered to testify for the township in opposition to Ondrik's attempt to secure a variance.
"At first I was a little amused, but then when I saw him bring in religion and all the lies I saw him conjuring up, it pissed me off," said Dave.
He's positive he didn't have a religious experience when he was there.
"There was no preaching. … There was no congregation. There was no gold dish being passed around. There was no pews, no pulpit, no nothing. It's not what was going on there," he told FOX News.
Ledewitz says Ondrik would have to battle to keep his doors open. "From the little I can see I think he's got an uphill fight to convince the zoning authorities, first that he's sincere, and secondly that the activities are not primarily commercial in nature."
Through his attorney John Ondrik refused an interview and rescinded an offer to give FOX News a tour of his church.
A ruling on the variance is expected Oct. 14. If it's denied, the Ondriks are expected to appeal.