In a great victory for religious liberty and equal treatment under the law, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has overturned a federal district court’s ruling which barred Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenos Nuevas Christian Church from occupying and holding worship services in its own building in downtown Yuma, Ariz. The city had rejected the church’s 2007 request for a permit to occupy the property while letting non-religious membership organizations locate in the downtown area without having to obtain a permit.
The city’s actions forced the church to pay for a property it could not use and also to pay rent on another building needed for services and worship. Eventually, the added expense of “thousands of dollars a month” to the church’s budget crushed it financially, and it was forced to give up its downtown building.
The church was initially concerned when the city said it must go through the burdensome process of applying for a “conditional use permit.” Still, the church was confident that the city would grant the permit since the city’s own law stated that the buildings in the downtown district were zoned for membership organizations and businesses to operate public assemblies. Under the city’s law, any membership organization (Kiwanis, Rotary, etc.) or business desiring to accommodate people with a common purpose (in a movie theater, a dance hall, etc.) was free to locate there. But the church soon learned that the city refused this privilege to organizations that were religious in nature.
Adding insult to injury, the city withheld the permit on the grounds that the church would “blight” entertainment in Yuma’s Old Town District. The city believed in essence that the church would lessen the free flow of alchohol in the area and thereby dampen the party atmosphere. City staff also targeted the church for exclusion because it would not generate tax revenue (even though multiple tax-exempt uses already operate in the area).
In addition, the city asserted that the church would not draw patrons to the area. This particular conclusion was obviously shortsighted. It completely ignored the fact that church congregants attending educational and worship events throughout the week would frequent area businesses just like persons gathering for theater events do. Moreover, many of the small offices and residences allowed in the zone would draw far less business and entertainment patronage than a multi-member church assembly.