9th Circuit sides with Ariz. church in zoning dispute

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

YUMA, Ariz. — A federal appeals court has sided with a Yuma church in a dispute over the city’s zoning rules.

A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday for Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas in the church’s appeal of a lower court ruling.

The case began when Yuma denied the church a permit to conduct services in a former department store building in an area that the city envisioned as an entertainment district with nightclubs selling alcohol.

The church sued, arguing that the city had violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. A provision of RLUIPA bars government officials from imposing land-use restrictions that treat religious groups “on less than equal terms with” nonreligious groups.

A trial judge ruled for the city, but the 9th Circuit reversed, saying the city had violated RLUIPA by requiring religious groups to obtain a permit but not requiring “similarly situated secular membership assemblies to do the same.”

“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 panel said.

Byron Babione, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund who represented the church, told Cronkite News that he and the church were “happy with the outcome.”

“Arizona has always had a good commitment to equality, the treatment of property owners and to the free exercise of religion,” Babione said.

City Administrator Greg Wilkinson said city officials were “disappointed” by the 9th Circuit’s ruling and had not decided whether to appeal, the Yuma Sun reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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