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Victory for Ariz. church left holding bill for building it wasn’t allowed to occupy

9th Circuit says city of Yuma violated federal law against treating churches unequally in zoning matters

SAN FRANCISCO — A Yuma, Ariz., church left paying the mortgage on a building the city would not allow it to occupy has won its legal battle on appeal and can now seek damages, including payment for the money it lost.

In a lawsuit filed by attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the city did not treat the church equally with similarly situated groups and businesses as required by federal law.  The law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, protects churches from discrimination in land use disputes with local governments.

“Churches should not be singled out for discrimination by a city’s zoning restrictions,” said Babione, who argued before the 9th Circuit in April of last year. “Government officials cannot use broad commercial reasons to favor non-religious businesses or membership organizations over religious ones. The city’s actions left this small congregation with a mortgage to pay on a building it couldn’t use for two years while it had to pay for another meeting place at the same time.”

In its opinion, the court wrote, “It is hard to see how an express exclusion of ‘religious organizations’ from uses permitted as of right by other ‘membership organizations’ could be other than ‘less than equal terms’ for religious organizations.”

The city requires religious organizations to obtain a conditional use permit to operate even though businesses and other “membership organizations” can build “as of right,” meaning they do not need a special permit. The city refused the church’s 2007 request for a permit on the basis that the church would “blight” an arts and entertainment district in the city’s Old Town District.

The court noted that “many of the uses permitted as of right would have the same practical effect as a church of blighting a potential block of bars and nightclubs.  An apartment building taking up the whole block may be developed as of right, and so may a post office or prison. Prisons have bars, but not the kind promoting ‘entertainment.’  Thus the ordinance before us expressly treats religious organizations on a less than equal basis.”

In May 2008, ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenos Nuevas Christian Church v. City of Yuma. After a federal judge ruled against the church in January 2009, ADF appealed to the 9th Circuit. Two of more than 2,000 attorneys in the ADF alliance are co-counsel in the case: David Langdon, who has litigated numerous RLUIPA cases in other circuits, and Deborah Sheasby, legal counsel with the Center for Arizona Policy. ADF-allied attorney Bradley Peppo is also part of the church’s legal team.

In August 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the church and also argued before the 9th Circuit in April 2010.

  • Pronunciation guide: Babione (BABB’-ee-own)

ADF is a legal alliance of Christian attorneys and like-minded organizations defending the right of people to freely live out their faith. Launched in 1994, ADF employs a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.