The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of religious liberty for an Arizona church today. In 2007, the city of Yuma had unlawfully denied the church a permit to use its building for worship. Attorneys for Center for Arizona Policy and the Alliance Defense Fund worked together to defend the church’s rights in court.
“Churches should not be treated unfavorably just because they are religious, and that is what the city of Yuma had done here,” said CAP Legal Counsel Deborah Sheasby. “Because of this ruling, government officials will not be able to discriminate against churches and single them out for negative treatment in how they use their property. We are excited about this victory for churches and religious freedom.”
In this case, the church purchased a building in downtown Yuma in 2007, but the city denied its permit saying that a church did not “fit in” with the city’s plans for the area. The church filed a lawsuit based on the Constitution and the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”), both of which prohibit the government from discriminating against religious organizations. A lower court ruled against the church, but today the Ninth Circuit reversed that decision.
The Ninth Circuit’s ruling explains that cities may not treat churches less favorably than non-religious groups. The city’s zoning ordinance “expressly treats religious organizations on a less than equal basis,” the court wrote. “The Yuma City Code’s exclusion of religious organizations is not reasonably well adapted to the zoning criteria it is purported to serve. And it therefore violates the equal terms provision of RLUIPA.”
In 2010, Center for Arizona Policy worked to pass a bill that clarifies Arizona law to better protect churches from the type of discrimination faced by the church in Yuma. That bill was signed and went into effect in July 2010.
Sheasby commended today’s court ruling, saying, “Today’s legal victory reinforces that Arizona churches have a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment to use their property to gather for worship. This is great news for Arizona churches!”
For more information, visit www.azpolicy.org.