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Local governments continue mistreating churches in land use and zoning matters

Written by Daniel P. Dalton on November 16, 2015 Category: Land Use and Zoning, Religious Institutions, RLUIPA
American Mountain Theater and Summit Church
AMT Owners Kenny & Beverly Sexton Join in Partnership with Summit Church Pastors Hal and Lisa Boehm. (Photo courtesy American Mountatin Theater)

Local governments are mistreating churches across the country. The latest example of this wave of discrimination is making headlines in Elkins, West Virginia, a town of around 7,000 people located a little more than 100 miles from Charleston.

Earlier this fall, Summit Church and the American Mountain Theater in Elkins announced plans for the church to buy the theater from owners Kenny and Beverly Sexton.

As reported by the town’s local newspaper The Inter-Mountain, the effort met resistance from the Randolph County Development Authority “on the grounds a church or religious institution does not constitute a permitted use of property under the covenants and standards governing the Elkins Railyard, where the theater is located. The RCDA gave the Sextons 14 days to call off the sale or face litigation.” The story also was covered by television stations WBOY and WDTV.

The ultimatum from the RCDA gave the church and theater no choice but to file litigation themselves alleging infringement of the church’s constitutional rights. Dalton & Tomich, PLC is representing the church and theater in the suit, which was filed just weeks after the 15th anniversary of the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which Congress signed in 2000 to protect churches and others from discrimination in land use and zoning matters.

The Inter-Mountain article summed up the argument, noting that the plaintiffs “believe the RCDA’s stance violates, among other things, constitutionally protected rights of religious freedom and equal protection.” The lawsuit cites the The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It also cites the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which notes a state may not “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.”

Suing the RCDA was not a decision Summit Church and American Mountain Theater came to easily.

The Inter-Mountain article highlights the comments Summit Church Pastor Hal Boehm made to his congregation about the lawsuit. “This is not something we’ve taken lightly. It’s not a position we want to be in,” Boehm said. “We do not believe this is just about Summit Church. The more we think about this and the more we pray about this, the more we are convinced that this is a battle for the religious rights and freedoms of every church in Randolph County.”

Kenny Sexton echoed Boehm’s comments with regard to the lawsuit:

This is not a place where we wanted to be, and it’s not what we expected. We were left with no option…. They didn’t say, ‘let’s negotiate or let’s talk about it.’ They voted and said if we don’t stop, we’ll sue you. We could either give in or fight. I believe it’s time for people to stand up for what’s right. The church has been meeting here for 3 1/2 years with no complaint. All of a sudden we want to sell and it becomes a big deal.

“It seemed to us that [our plans] fit the definition clearly of a multi-use, public-use facility,” Boehm told the newspaper. “The only difference is we have a religious affiliation.”

Churches and other religious organizations across the country are faced with similar difficult decisions every week. They need to purchase property, renovate existing structures or perform other actions to keep their congregations alive and to continue offering the valuable services they bring to communities and their residents. But, time and time again, local governments ranging from cities to county development authorities attempt to derive these religious institutions of their constitutional rights.

Dalton & Tomich, PLC has succeeded in preserving those rights for churches and others from coast to coast.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.