Judge passes on Grace Church case
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
EMMA ” It appears that the legal battle over approval of a new church in Emma is changing venues.
A federal judge on Wednesday shot down Grace Church’s efforts to move a lawsuit, recently filed by its Emma neighbors, from district court to federal court.
But attorneys for the church, which has convened in a rented space in El Jebel since 2002, claim the federal judge failed to consider their responses. They said they plan to appeal his decision.
It was the most recent development in the Grace Church saga, which saw Pitkin County commissioners in January overturn their 2005 decision denying the church’s application to build a new church along Highway 82 in Emma, downvalley from Basalt.
The county said it reversed its decision because of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which forbids local governments from impeding anyone’s right to worship.
Commissioners did not support a new building they said did not fit with the rural character of the area, but a loss in a federal court could have invited a mega-church, they said.
The county allowed Grace Church to build a new 15,500-square-foot church with 197 parking spaces to maintain some control over the project.
Neighbors and members of the Emma Caucus fought the decision and filed their own lawsuit in Pitkin County District Court in February, claiming the county commissioners failed to hold public meetings and did not follow the county land-use code.
Church officials asked to have the caucus lawsuit moved to federal court and be heard by the same judge in the federal case they were settling with county commissioners.
But Wednesday, Chief Federal Judge Edward W. Nottingham said no.
Citing “convoluted reasons” church officials offered for having the lawsuits heard by the same judge, Nottingham remanded the case to Pitkin County District Court.
Emma Caucus members’ allegations were about a violation of county ordinance, not federal law, according to the judge’s order.
Robert A. Lees, the Denver attorney for the church, said he will appeal.
“The judge did not consider our briefs and did not consider Pitkin County briefs,” Lees said, adding that both he and the county filed multiple responses. “That’s an error and it’s an automatic appeal.”
Lees added that regardless of the end result of the Emma Caucus case, federal legislation protecting religious freedom trumps any state case.
County Attorney John Ely could not be reached for comment Thursday.
David Kelly, Emma resident and the attorney for the Emma Caucus, said Lees’ appeal is no surprise.
“I think they’re going to try and put up as many hurdles as they can to keep this case from being heard on its merits,” Kelly said.
The caucus case, Kelly said, is a simply a state court review of the county board’s land-use action and does not belong in the federal system.
“Any filing would not change the case,” Kelly said, adding that new arguments would be unlikely to sway Nottingham’s decision.
If the appeal fails in federal court, attorneys for either side will file their arguments and a district court judge will rule on whether the county commissioners were in error.
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