Religious mission challenges Salt Lake City’s redevelopment plan

Monday, September 13, 1999

A Christian ministry in Salt Lake City has charged city officials with unconstitutionally trying to force the religious group's mission to the poor outside city limits. The city has ordered the mission out of its building, citing its urban-renewal efforts.

Represented by the Rutherford Institute, a conservative Christian legal group based in Virginia, the Salt Lake City Mission has sued the city and its Redevelopment Agency, saying the government is infringing on its religious practices by not permitting the ministry to keep its outreach programs to the poor within city limits.

According to the Rutherford Institute's complaint filed in Utah's 3rd District Court on Sept. 8, the city and its agency have violated the church's free exercise of religion rights and acted with hostility toward religion. The complaint also charges city officials, including the mayor, of conspiring to keep the ministry's mission out of the city.

“The church believes its ongoing inability to secure a (new) location in the city to provide its religious services and ministries to homeless and poor parishioners has been specifically encouraged and supported by the city, its mayor, its City Council, its Planning and Zoning Commission, its [Redevelopment Agency], its police force and city officials receiving directions from the same,” the complaint states. “These repeated actions, taken under the color of state law, were intentionally done by these government actors, with either malice, fraudulent intent, or in callous and reckless disregard for” the ministry's religious-liberty rights.

Before April, the ministry had been renting properties for its outreach programs in west Salt Lake City, the area now being redeveloped. In May the city bought the rental proprieties on condition that the ministry's mission be evicted. The Rutherford Institute's complaint said the ministry was never informed of such an agreement.

The ministry says its outreach programs offer a place for the city's poor to “find some food and help in taking that first important step back to a new life” in a “place where the gift of God's unconditional love is lived out every day.”

Roger Thompson, the Redevelopment Agency's chairman, told The Deseret News of Salt Lake City that he was not aware of any plot or conspiracy to rid the west side or any part of downtown of the ministry.

“First Amendment rights are serious and freedom of religion issues are serious, and they need to be looked at carefully,” Thompson said. “Certainly we take every case seriously. People aren't happy when they have to move, and when the government is involved I think they feel something sinister is going on.”

Matthew Hilton, an attorney affiliated with the Rutherford Institute and representing the ministry, said that “both for the sake of the people the mission serves and the exercise of fundamental religious freedoms, this abusive and unconstitutional action must be stopped.”