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Pastor: Partial court loss may prove victory for Texas church

WASHINGTON (BP)–As far as Bruce Coe is concerned, a partial defeat in court may prove to be a victory for the church he pastors.

In a case with national implications, federal judge Royal Ferguson’s March 19 opinion upheld a federal law protecting religious liberty in zoning and prison cases, but it delivered a split decision in a dispute between a large Southern Baptist Church and a suburb of San Antonio, Texas.

The city of Castle Hills did not substantially burden Castle Hills First Baptist Church’s free exercise of religion when it refused to grant a permit for additional parking space, Ferguson ruled in a 45-page opinion. He decided, however, the city did substantially burden the church’s religious rights when it rejected a request for a permit to complete the fourth floor of one of its buildings.

The decision “isn’t everything we wanted,” said Coe, pastor of First Baptist Church, but it is “going to cause us to look harder at what God wants us to be.

“Yes, we need parking,” he said. “We’re not going to let this be a setback. Ultimately, this is going to make us stronger.

“I’m encouraged by it for what it’s going to do for us and what it’s going to do within our body.” Coe said.

The case is one of several across the country involving religious bodies and municipalities. Increasingly, local governments have used zoning ordinances to block churches and other religious institutions from expanding or relocating.

Congress addressed the problem, as well as the clash between religious rights and order in prisons, by passing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. As part of its effect, 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.

Ferguson, a judge in the Western District of Texas, rejected the city of Castle Hills’ claim RLUIPA is unconstitutional. He ruled RLUIPA neither violated the First Amendment prohibition on government establishment of religion nor exceeded Congress’ power under the Constitution.

Michael Shands, the city manager of Castle Hills, said the city “is very satisfied with the judge’s reasoned judgment and rational approach to it. I’m satisfied that both sides received something. I was certainly satisfied the judge upheld the zoning ordinances but also recognized that the church gets to use its building.”

In his opinion, Ferguson left open the possibility the case may yet go to trial. His ruling came in response to an Oct. 22 hearing on motions for summary judgment by both the church and city.

Coe said he did not know if the church would seek further legal proceedings.

Shands said, “If it were my decision I would leave it alone, but ultimately that is a decision for attorneys and counsel.”

Both Coe, who became FBC’s pastor in June 2002, and Shands, who became city manager in July 2002, entered the dispute after it began. In the late 1990s, the church purchased 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. It also rejected the church’s request for a permit to convert storage space on the fourth floor of a building in order to occupy it. The church filed suit against the city in 2001.

Coe said he wishes Ferguson had been able to understand the importance of parking for a church like First Baptist, which has about 13,000 members. The judge “misses the point of how crucial parking is to the health and viability of a church,” said Coe, who was chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee in 2001-02.

In seeking to illustrate this, Coe said he asked a reporter who was interviewing him on the decision, “Have you ever been to a mall at Christmas time and not been able to find a parking space? It’s no different for a church.”