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Federal judge grants partial victory to Texas church

WASHINGTON (BP)–A federal judge in Texas granted a large Southern Baptist church in a San Antonio suburb only a partial victory March 19 in a dispute over religious freedom and zoning regulations.

Judge Royal Ferguson of the U.S. Western District of Texas ruled in favor of Castle Hills First Baptist Church regarding its request for a permit to complete the fourth floor of one of its buildings. In his 45-page opinion, Ferguson said the city of Castle Hills’ denial of the permit was a substantial burden on the church’s free exercise of religion.

Ferguson, however, denied the church’s request for judgment against the city for its refusal to grant a permit for a parking lot. The city’s denial of the permit for additional parking did not substantially burden the church’s religious rights, he said.

“The court plainly split the baby, and we’re still deciding what we’re going to do about that,” said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which presented arguments on the church’s side in the case.

In a victory for attempts to protect religious liberty nationwide, Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of a federal law to protect religious freedom in zoning and prison cases. The city of Castle Hills had argued the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act violated the First Amendment prohibition on government establishment of religion.

RLUIPA, signed by President Clinton in September 2000, prohibits land use laws that substantially burden the free exercise of religion by a person or institution. The only exception is if the government can show it has a compelling interest and is using the least restrictive means to advance that interest.

Congress passed RLUIPA after the more expansive Religious Freedom Restoration Act was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. In doing so, Congress -– with the support of a diverse coalition of organizations, including the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission — sought to address two of the areas in which government most commonly inhibits religious free exercise. In recent years, churches and other religious bodies have faced increasing municipal impediments in their attempts to move or to expand their buildings.

A hearing on motions for summary judgment by both the church and city was held before Ferguson Oct. 22. The U.S. Department of Justice argued in defense of RLUIPA during the hearing. The judge, in his ruling, left open the possibility the case may yet go to trial.

In the late 1990s, the church purchased additional land across the street from its campus to use for additional parking. The city council refused the church’s efforts to gain a permit for the lots. The church filed suit against the city in 2001.

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