Federal Court Rules Cities Cannot Impose Restrictions on Churches

Phoenix, AZ – The fight surrounds a bid by a group in Yuma to convert an old J.C. Penney Building in the downtown historic district into a church. But the city code said churches are allowed in that district only with a special use permit. And the city denied that permit because it wants to redevelop downtown into a tourist hub and a church would rule out new bars and restaurants within 300 feet. But in a unanimous decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said that violates federal laws which preclude discrimination against religious institutions. Deborah Sheasby, an attorney for the Center for Arizona Policy which sued Yuma, said the ruling, while important, is not absolute. She said communities can impose religion-neutral requirements.

(It's only when you have a situation like this, where religious organizations are specifically singled out for unfavorable treatment or specifically denied permits only because they're a religious organization and they don't fit in with what the city wants in that area that then they're crossed the line into discriminating against the church.)

In explaining where that line is, appellate Judge Andrew Kleinfeld said that a city cannot impose restrictions on a 10-member church that it would not impose on a 10-member book club. But the judge said that does not mean a city also has to allow a thousand-member church at the same site if it does not meet other requirements like additional parking spaces. For Arizona Public Radio this is Howard Fischer.