Nightclub mogul Peter Hafiz wants to expand his strip club empire to include what he’s calling a “Topless Tap House.” First, the city of Minneapolis will have to decide if a ministry above a pizza shop qualifies as a place of worship.

On Thursday, a City Council committee will confront the argument by 3 Degrees Church that the city should scuttle Hafiz’s new topless bar at 415 1st Ave. N. because of a law meant to keep “sexually oriented” businesses and houses of worship more than 500 feet apart.

The clash in the Warehouse District is the second one between the Christian organization and an adult entertainment club. 3 Degrees lost that fight in 2006 when the city decided it was primarily a nightclub.

This time, lawyers representing Hafiz say 3 Degrees isn’t a “religious place of assembly” because it’s one tenant in a building with decidedly secular activities.

“This is a spot on the fourth floor of an office building which has law offices, a radio station, Pizza Luce and a nightclub in it,” said Dennis Johnson, attorney for Hafiz, at the city’s March 1 meeting of the Zoning Board of Adjustment. “It’s not a building that was designed for a religious institution.” After some lobbying on Hafiz’s behalf from former City Council Member Gary Schiff, the board voted 5-4 in favor of approving the club. 3 Degrees appealed that decision to the City Council.

Nancy Aleksuk, senior pastor for 3 Degrees, said the vote shocked her. The IRS recognizes the group as a church, and the ordinance is there for a reason, Aleksuk said.

“We have ministered to women who have come out of the adult entertainment industry over the years,” she said. “It’s important for them to feel like they have a clear path of travel or a way to get to church without possibly being confronted by ex-patrons or being challenged by other people still in that industry.”

Back in August 2006, her organization operated a nonalcoholic, Christian-oriented nightspot known as Club Three Degrees, and it was located at 115 N. 5th St. To its dismay, a club with totally nude dancers wanted to open nearby, and the decision fell to the City Council. Schiff joined the 10-3 vote ruling that Club Three Degrees wasn’t a church under that definition.

Diva’s Gentleman’s Club is long gone from the Warehouse District, but 3 Degrees remains. It moved one block to 119 N. 4th St., eliminated the club nights and incorporated as a church in 2008. It now holds services twice weekly and administers Bible study and outreach ministries.

“Pretty much every kind of function that you will find at a church, you will find at 3 Degrees,” Aleksuk said. “We do have a dedicated facility that is strictly for church and religious purposes.”

Hafiz’s businesses include Déjà Vu, Dream Girls and The Gay ’90s. Last fall, he applied for the license to open a topless bar in the former Imperial Room space.

Hafiz wouldn’t define what a “Topless Tap House” would entail, saying the concept is still in development. Johnson said it would most likely include a fully clothed bar on the ground floor, with two floors of adult entertainment above. Neither would comment on the zoning dispute.

At the March 1 meeting, Johnson said the city originally gave the project approval, but a city staffer later said there had been a mistake, and the proposal didn’t meet the city’s distance requirements from a place of worship.

Hafiz hired Schiff to help make the case that 3 Degrees still wasn’t a church.

After criticizing the code as poorly written, the Board of Adjustment Chairman Matt Perry cast the tie-breaking vote. “I’m not particularly happy that I’m voting yes for that, but based upon the arguments before us and the code we have to work with, my only conclusion is to do so,” Perry said, according to minutes of the meeting.

Aleksuk said she was optimistic that the City Council committee will vote in her favor Thursday. If it doesn’t, she said the decision could raise implications for other faith-based ministries in Minneapolis.

“I can’t imagine that the city of Minneapolis wants to get into recognizing what is or is not a church,” she said.