(CN) – A Baptist church that was banned from holding services on its Yuma, Ariz., property because the city didn’t want to interfere with local businesses’ liquor licenses can sue for damages, the 9th Circuit ruled.
“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,” the decision explains.
Unhappy with its rented space in a section of a former movie theater, the Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas church set it sights on a “vacant hulk” in Yuma that once housed a J.C. Penny.
Though church leaders knew they needed a conditional-use permit to hold services in the building, they bought the property before the city could act on its permit application because the distress sale price for the foreclosed building would not last.
Unfortunately for the 250-member church, which has ties to the Arizona Southern Baptist Convention, the property is in the center of Yuma’s Old Town district, which the city had been promoting as a tourist center.
Ultimately Yuma officials rejected the permit, deciding that a church would be inconsistent with a “24/7 downtown neighborhood involving retail, residential, office, and entertainment.” A state law prohibits bars, nightclubs and liquor stores from operating within 300 feet of churches.
Unable to conduct services and generate revenue, Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas lost the building in foreclosure. The congregation filed suit in federal court.
An Arizona federal judge ruled in favor of Yuma, but a three-judge appellate panel sitting in San Francisco revived the church’s damages claim on Tuesday.
Noting that a secular or membership organization would not need a permit, the judges found that the Yuma City Code might violate the equal terms provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The provision states: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.”
A permit requirement exclusively for religious organizations is too broad to be justified by the liquor-licensing concerns, according to the 19-page decision.
“The uses permitted as of right include several uses that would seem to put a damper on entertainment, such as ‘correction centers,’ or create a dead block uninteresting to tourists and locals seeking ‘lively’ entertainment, such as ‘multiple-family dwellings,” Judge Andrew Kleinfeld wrote for the court.
“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,” he added.
If the church can prove a violation and damages on remand, the city could be liable. Since the property did go into foreclosure, and since Yuma subsequently amended the statute to allow a waiver, the church’s claims for declaratory judgment and an injunction were dismissed as moot.