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Yuma church can sue city for damages in zoning denial, appeals court rules

WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court Tuesday said a Southern Baptist church can sue the city of Yuma for damages after city zoning decisions prevented the congregation from worshiping at a building it bought in the city’s Old Town section.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said city law improperly required the Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas church to get a conditional use permit for the Old Town property. It would not have required the same of a secular organization, a violation of the equal-terms provision of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the court said.

The “pivotal factor” in the city’s decision to deny the permit was the fact that the presence of a church could have gotten in the way of city plans to redevelop Old Town as an entertainment district, court documents said. State law at the time banned liquor licenses within 300 feet of a church.

“This is a sort of reverse urban-blight case, with the twist that instead of bars and nightclubs being treated as blighting their more genteel environs, the church is treated as blighting the bar and nightclub district,” Circuit Judge Andrew J. Kleinfeld wrote in Tuesday’s opinion.

The ruling by the three-judge panel of the court in San Francisco was hailed by Byron J. Babione, the attorney for the church.

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

Yuma City Administrator Greg Wilkinson said the city was “disappointed” in the court’s ruling.

“We are still studying the court’s opinion to assess the city’s options,” he said in a prepared statement.

Court documents said the city of Yuma began trying to resurrect its Old Town Main Street area in the 1990s as an entertainment and tourist district, with a mixture of “cultural, governmental, and residential uses that will help to ensure a lively pedestrian-oriented district.”

The church entered the scene in 2007 when it bought a vacant J.C. Penney building in Old Town, hoping to move from cramped rental space. Church officials knew they would need a conditional use permit in Old Town, but had to move quickly to buy the Penney’s building, which was in foreclosure.

City officials recognized the benefits of allowing the church to operate, such as “rehabilitation of a deteriorated and long-vacant building.” But they ultimately recommended against the permit, saying a church would be inconsistent with “a 24/7 downtown neighborhood involving retail, residential office and entertainment.”

While it was waiting for a decision, the church was paying rent on its old space and a mortgage on the Penney’s property that it could not use. After two years, it could no longer afford the payments and lost the building to foreclosure.

“They were stuck with having to pay their mortgage and continue to pay rent where the church would meet,” Babione said.

The court said city law only required conditional use permits for churches and schools, both of which trigger liquor license limits. Other uses, such as “membership organizations,” museums, apartment complexes, entertainment venues — and even jails — could operate without a permit.

Kleinfeld noted the irony of a zoning law that restricts churches and schools but allows jails. “Prisons have bars, but not the kind promoting ‘entertainment’,” he wrote in the opinion.

That distinction agitates Babione.

“Every other organization you can conceive of would have had no resistance from the city,” Babione said. “But if you’re a religious organization, you have to go through a gantlet.

“The problem with that is you can’t single out religious assemblies for discriminatory treatment,” said Babione, who is also senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund.

The church sued but a federal district judge in Phoenix sided with Yuma, ruling that treating churches differently than secular organizations did not violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The appellate court Tuesday overturned the lower court’s decision and ordered it to rehear the church’s claim for damages.

Since the case was filed, Arizona has adopted a state law that mirrors the federal RLUIPA and it has changed the liquor law restrictions to allow liquor licenses within 300 feet of a church in some instances.

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