Colorado Church Takes County to Court

November 19, 2008

rocky-mountain-christian-church-colorado.JPGWhen the largest church in Boulder County, Colo., wanted to double its size two years ago, county commissioners said no. Rocky Mountain Christian Church already dominated a rural corner of the
county northwest of Denver. If it became any larger, commissioners
said, it would destroy the area’s country atmosphere.

But the church didn’t accept the decision
quietly. Using a relatively new federal law meant to protect religious
organizations from discrimination by local governments, church
officials charged Boulder County with hampering their ability to
practice their religion.

The county responded by calling the law
unconstitutional because it prevented communities from controlling
their growth and planning.

This month, the conflict reached a federal courtroom in Denver, where a jury will begin deliberating the case today.

Although such cases have cropped up around the
country since the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
was passed in 2000, legal experts say they rarely advance to the

The Supreme Court has not heard a land-use case under
the statute, but lower courts generally have ruled that the law is
constitutional, said Patricia Salkin, associate dean and director of
the Albany Law School Government Law Center in New York.

issue, she said, is that the law says governments can’t place a
“substantial burden” on the right to practice religion but doesn’t
adequately define substantial burden.

Many cases have focused on
whether a church can locate in a particular area, but the Boulder
County case is one of the first to deal with the size of a religious
institution, Salkin said.

In 2006, Rocky Mountain Christian
Church announced plans to add a children’s wing, gymnasium, rooms for
adult classes and 500 parking spaces. The expansion would have brought
the church’s square footage to 240,000. The expansion was planned for
land it owned in the county’s agricultural buffer between urban and
rural areas.

Boulder County officials, known for aggressively
preserving open space and rural land, agreed to a small expansion of
the church sanctuary but denied the rest, calling it “completely out of
character” with the area.

County officials pointed out that they
had approved five expansion requests from the church over 10 years.
This one “so clearly fell outside the regulations . . . that no entity
or institution requesting such an expansion would’ve been approved,”
county officials said in a statement.

The church already was the
largest in the county — as big as a local Wal-Mart — with a
1,400-seat sanctuary, a school for 380 children, a gymnasium and
parking for 775 cars, county officials said.

The church’s
lawyer, Kathryn Hopping, said more than 2,000 people attended the
church, but it could not hold banquets for more than 250 people and had
to curtail adult classes.

“Holding classes in hallways — substantial burden,” Hopping said. “Kids sitting on floors — substantial burden.”

the trial, church officials argued that the county commission was
biased against them. They cited a planning commissioner’s comments
about trying to keep the church from getting too big. They also said he
remarked during a hearing: “You can bring in your Christians now.”

church compared its expansion problems with the commission’s approval
of a private secular school’s plans for a gymnasium, playing fields and
buildings in 1996.

That school’s case was approved by a
different set of commissioners, county attorney John Bauer said, and
the expansion was much smaller than the church’s.

He said the
church had offered no evidence of religious bias. County officials
“approved applications in 1993, 1995, 1998, in 2001, and in 2003. Did
they have anti-religious bias then?” Bauer asked.

Some churches
claim discrimination so they can avoid the land-use process, said Marci
A. Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University’s Benjamin N. Cardozo
School of Law in New York. A critic of the law, she advises
governments, including Boulder County, on how to handle such challenges.

Hamilton said the law was unnecessary because it was already unconstitutional to discriminate against a religious group.

lawyer Eric Rassbach said the law gave an important tool to religious
groups facing legitimate problems. Rassbach is the national litigation
director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is helping
the church in its lawsuit.

“It tells municipalities . . . you
have to care about religious exercise,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that
a church gets to go to a county and say, ‘I get whatever I want.’ It
does say the county has to figure out what’s the burden on religious
exercise and how do I alleviate that?”

Source: Los Angeles Times

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