Boulder County loses appeal in church dispute
Associated Press Writer
DENVER (AP) – Boulder County lost its appeal Monday in a zoning dispute with the largest church in the county in a case that both sides say could affect similar cases across the country.
Rocky Mountain Christian Church is seeking to more than double its campus to 240,000-square feet from about 106,000-square-feet near Niwot, about five miles northeast of Boulder. The church had challenged the county’s denial of a special-use permit under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects churches from discriminatory land-use laws.
The county had argued that jurors didn’t have sufficient evidence when it returned a verdict in November 2008 that allows Rocky Mountain Christian Church to expand in the county. That jury found that the county’s zoning laws placed a substantial burden on the practice of religion, were unfairly applied to churches, and placed unreasonable limits on religion.
The church had halted its expansion while county commissioners appealed that verdict.
In the ruling Monday, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the county’s claim of insufficient evidence and said the court cannot substitute its judgment for the jury’s. It upheld U.S. District Judge Robert Blackburn’s order that the county approve the permit.
Pastor Alan Ahlgrim said the church has since opened another large campus in nearby Frederick since it applied for an expansion permit in 2004.
“We are following all the county regulations, and we got caught in that legal quagmire,” Ahlgrim said. “We’ll see what God has in store for our future. This was about keeping our options open.”
County commissioners were reviewing the case and weighing their options.
“We were hoping to get significant guidance on what this very difficult law means for local governments,” Commissioner Ben Pearlman said.
“This law makes it very difficult for any local government to do anything other than approve whatever any religious organization puts in front of them,” he added.
Lori Windham, an attorney for Washington-based The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, was among several attorneys representing the church. She said the ruling could affect cases with similar issues pending in federal appeals courts in Texas, California and Illinois.
The three-judge appellate panel noted that during the trial, jurors heard evidence that the county’s special use permit process placed unreasonable limits on churches, with one church running out of money while seeking a permit and abandoned its building project.
In another instance, a woman who approached the county about a synagogue testified that she was told that it would be limited to 100 seats to prevent another “mega” church from being built in Boulder County.
Pearlman disputed those comments and said the county is friendly to churches and continues to attract them.
“Until this 240,000-square-foot application, we had approved every church application,” Pearlman said. “I think what they (Rocky Mountain Christian) were applying for had far too much impact.”
Blackburn has ordered the county to pay the church $1.34 million in attorneys’ fees and other costs.
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