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Grace Church case goes federal

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

EMMA ” With both God and the federal government on their side, members of the Grace Church of the Roaring Fork Valley hope to build a new church in Emma, but neighbors who have filed a recent lawsuit are bringing the fight.

Pitkin County commissioners denied the 2005 application from Grace Church, a nondenominational congregation of more than 100 that currently meets in El Jebel. Church officials then filed a federal suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which forbids local governments from impeding anyone’s right to worship.

Faced with a slew of precedents where churches won out over local governments, and fearing they would lose control of the project and see a megachurch on the 18-acre site along Highway 82 in Emma, downvalley from Basalt, county commissioners settled the case and granted Grace Church the right to build.

Neighbors of the proposed church and the Emma Caucus, an advisory board to the county, then sued county commissioners and the church in Pitkin County district court, claiming local officials had overstepped their authority in granting the right to build the 15,000-square-foot church.

On Feb. 4, lawyers for the church asked that the case be moved to federal courts, claiming the state lawsuit was an attack on federal authority and the two lawsuits should be looked at by the same judge.

The dispute in Emma is one of many cases challenging RLUIPA across the United States. As close as Boulder County there are cases where local jurisdictions and religious officials are in dispute over land use and the right to build new or expand religious institutions.

RLUIPA prevents any infringement of religious exercise or zoning law that impose a “substantial burden” on the religious practice of a person or institution, according to information on the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division website.

Religious institutions must be given the same consideration as similar secular gatherings such as clubs and community groups. Zoning ordinances cannot exclude religious assembly altogether nor discriminate against a specific group, banning Muslim minarets in a town, for example, according to the U.S. Department of Justice site.

It’s hard to fight RLUIPA, according to Pitkin County attorney John Ely.

“We would not be successful at the trial court level,” Ely said after the county board bowed to church pressure and the threat of a federal suit.

Though the federal act has not been challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, Ely said it was best to cut Pitkin County’s losses and agree to the settlement, which keeps some county control over the project.

In their recent lawsuit, however, Emma residents claim that county commissioners abused their discretion and approved the church building without any new application or evidence. Neighbors claim the plan violates both the county land use code and the downvalley master plan.

Emma residents are asking the courts to reverse the approval to build and stop any building permits until the matter is settled, according to court papers.

“Our complaint asks the county to go back and do it right,” said Parker Maddux, an Emma resident.

Maddux said neighbors aren’t challenging RLUIPA or trying to prevent the practice of religion, but he believes Lees is trying to apply the federal act “in a way not intended by congress.”

“This is not anti-church at all,” Maddux said. “The issue is where the church has bought this land is zoned for preserving agricultural land. It wouldn’t fit in.”

Emma residents would oppose any such large commercial structure on neighboring ranch land, Maddux said.

“Lees’ argument is that RLUIPA allows a church to completely trump local zoning,” Maddux said.

He, and many Emma residents, disagree, and Maddux cited a recent a case in Cheyenne, Wyo., where city officials shot down a federal challenge from a church over a school expansion.

“That indicated the limitations of RLUIPA, which is very important,” Maddux said.

The Emma Caucus lawsuit could delay the settlement between Pitkin County and Grace Church, according to Robert A. Lees, a Denver attorney representing Grace Church.

U.S. District Court Judge Richard P. Matsch, who is presiding over the federal case between the church and the county, signed an order of settlement in the original case, but the caucus case is a monkey wrench, Lees said.

He is seeking to have the caucus lawsuit moved to federal court, and Lees said he will seek damages and attorneys fees from the Emma Caucus for delaying construction.

“It’s an attempt to go around the US district court,” Lees said of the lawsuit. “To me that’s unfathomable, you just don’t do that.”

The Grace Church building plan complies with the building codes as they were set in 2005, Lees said, and the extra 500 square feet over the usual 15,000-square-foot cap was for additional basement space, a standard practice before the most recent land use code changes.

The planned build allows for a county refueling area and parking for local trails, and the church agreed to be strictly bound to land use code in the future.

“We’ve essentially waived our rights that down the road we’re going to assert RLUIPA,” Lees said. “We’re limited to the 15,000 square feet.”

Lees said he’s represented religious institutions with bad motives who sought to place a massive building with a tall steeple somewhere that it wasn’t wanted, but that wasn’t the case with Grace Church. The proposed build will fit in the landscape, he said.

“There’s no mega-church here. This is not a WalMart,” Lees said. “I don’t see any abuse here.”

Attorneys in the case will hold a status conference Monday, and Lees hopes that Judge Matsch will look at both the settlement and the new caucus lawsuit as a pair.

“The law is really what it is. It is absolutely clear,” Lees said. “If you prohibit their right to build, that’s an interference with their religious exercise.”

cagar@aspentimes.com


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