“This land was made for you and me.”
These are the words of the famous Woody Guthrie song, but for many cities and towns across America, the sentiment isn’t extended to churches.
Land-use lawsuits don’t get much attention. That’s why it was surprising when the issue received an extensive write-up in The Atlantic.
As the author so aptly described, land-use disputes have been used as a cover to discriminate against religious groups – and particularly churches. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has helped a number of churches over the years who have experienced varying degrees of hostility from their city councils and government officials.
One such case involved Centro Familiar Christian Church of Yuma, Arizona. This church had been looking for a new worship center because the movie theater space that it was renting was not adequate for the growing congregation.
When it purchased a large vacant building in Yuma’s Old Town District, it seemed a perfect fit for a variety of reasons. The building was in foreclosure, selling for much less than what the size and location would normally dictate. It was the heart of the community, with room to grow.
The city however, had different plans. This land wasn’t made for the church.
It required religious organizations to obtain a conditional use permit to operate even though businesses did not need one. When the church applied for the permit, the city refused the church’s request. This land, the city said, was made for businesses.
Ironically – given the longtime vacancy of the building – the city refused on the basis that the church would “blight” an arts and entertainment district in the city’s Old Town District.
ADF filed a lawsuit under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law designed to protect churches against discriminatory zoning practices. After an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Centro Familiar won its federal case.
However, while the case was pending, the city’s actions left this congregation with a mortgage to pay on a building it couldn’t use while paying for another meeting place at the same time. Eventually, the church could not keep up both payments and had to let its building go.
ADF was able to secure damages for the church to help lessen the blow, but the building could not be recovered. Despite losing this location, the church was able to secure a building in a neighboring town where it now enjoys a new home to preach the Gospel.
Land-use cases like this, as well as those cases discussed in The Atlantic article, are just the tip of the iceberg of reasons for Alliance Defending Freedom to create the Church Alliance. The Church Alliance is a new program that helps member churches of all sizes and denominations by offering document review, access to attorneys, legal consultation, legal representation, and specialized resources.
Learn more about how your church can become engaged, empowered, and protected as a member of this program.