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Court sides with church's bid to expand, but not bias claim

November 21, 2008|DeeDee Correll | Correll is a Times staff writer.

DENVER — Boulder County, Colo., officials acted illegally when they turned down a local church's request to double its size, but their decision was not motivated by religious bias, a federal jury decided this week.

Rocky Mountain Christian Church sued the county in 2006 after being denied a permit to expand. Church officials said that county commissioners had violated a federal law protecting religious institutions from discrimination by local governments. County officials argued that the church's expansion plan violated the county's land-use code and wasn't in character with its rural surroundings.

The verdict is a victory for supporters of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits local governments from placing a "substantial burden" on the right to practice religion. Proponents say the law provides much-needed protections. Opponents say it prevents communities from controlling growth.

The message to governments is clear, said Tom Ragonetti, an attorney for the church: "Treat churches fairly. Fairly and evenhandedly."

After a two-week trial in U.S. District Court in Denver, jurors found that the county had violated the federal law by failing to treat the church as it would a nonreligious institution, and by hindering members' ability to practice their religion. Church leaders said that the county's denial of the permit left them cramped for space and unable to accommodate a burgeoning congregation.

What happens next was unclear Thursday. Ragonetti said the verdict cleared the way for the church to expand, but Deputy County Atty. David Hughes said the judge first must rule on the appropriate relief. "Our position is that the judge has discretion in terms of fashioning a remedy," Hughes said.

Neither side knew when U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn would issue his decision. He also will rule on whether the county must pay the church's legal fees.

Jurors rejected the church's claim for $7.6 million in economic damages. They also rejected the assertion that commissioners acted out of religious bias against Christians, a decision that Boulder County spokeswoman Barbara Halpin said county officials were pleased with. "That was very important to our commissioners," she said.

Halpin said she didn't know how the outcome of the case would affect the way the county deals with other religious institutions on land-use matters.

The question that remains, she said, is: "Do we still have the right to enforce the land-use code across the board?"

The jury's finding that commissioners acted improperly -- even if they did not do so out of bigotry -- demonstrates the need for the federal law, said Eric Rassbach, national litigation director for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which helped the church with its case.

Churches face threats from government officials who take the position that " 'We don't dislike you, but we won't take your religious exercise into account,' " he said. "The point of [the law] is to say you have to care."

Marci A. Hamilton, a professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, argues that there's no need for the law because the Constitution already protects the expression of religion.

She noted that the jury rejected other claims by the church that the county had violated the Constitution.

"By finding no constitutional violation . . . the jury has made it clear that [the federal law] is a special privilege for religious landowners that the Constitution does not provide," she said.


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