Written by Nick Hytrek (Court Reporter) from the Sioux City Journal, and reposted here. Click HERE for original article.
WALTHILL, Neb. — A church has sued the Village of Walthill, claiming that the village board has violated its First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly by passing zoning laws designed to discriminate against the church.
Light of the World Gospel Ministries claims that the village board has blocked its quest to build a new church on Walthill’s Main Street for four years and has inconsistently enforced its zoning laws in the Thurston County town located on the Omaha Indian Reservation. The lawsuit also claims the village board has violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits zoning laws that place restrictions on churches and other religious institutions.
“The Village of Walthill is trying to keep this church off of Main Street. Light of the World Gospel Ministries wants to invest in and help revitalize this diverse community by tearing down dilapidated buildings and provide a new space that would serve the community. Why is the village preventing this church from meeting the needs of this community?” Roger Byron, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, said in a news release.
First Liberty Institute, a Plano, Texas-based legal organization that, according to its website, is dedicated to protecting religious liberty, is representing Light of the World in the suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Omaha.
Walthill Village Board chairman Mike Grant referred questions to the village’s attorney, Matthew Munderloh, of Omaha. Munderloh said he had not yet had a chance to fully review the lawsuit and could not comment on the specific allegations contained in it.
“This has been an ongoing issue with Light of the World since 2014 over some zoning disputes,” Munderloh said.
Light of the World, which on its website calls itself a Christian church with a diverse, multi-cultural congregation, first applied for a building permit in December 2013, saying the converted funeral home it occupies at 214 Main St. had become too crowded to accommodate the approximately 200 people who regularly attend worship services and other events. The church had bought several dilapidated buildings across the street with the intention of demolishing them and building a new church.
The village board approved the permit in January 2014, but only after passing a new permit ordinance that required the church to provide for two commercial businesses on Main Street in its construction plans, the lawsuit said.
In April 2014, the board adopted a new zoning ordinance and a comprehensive plan allowing religious assembly in a downtown zoning area only after the board has granted a special use permit. The lawsuit claims that the new zoning rules give the board members discretion on whether to allow religious speech.
The village board revoked the building permit at a July 2014 meeting in which, according to the lawsuit, four Walthill residents alleged that Light of the World had unfavorable religious views of Native Americans or Native American religious beliefs. The lawsuit said some church members in attendance were ordered to leave that meeting and not given a chance to respond to the residents’ allegations, which it said are false.
The village board has since denied the church two demolition permit requests to tear down the dilapidated buildings it owns. The board also denied the church’s special use permit request in September after a motion to grant the permit died when no other board member seconded it. Board members stated no reasons for the denial, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit says the village enacted the new zoning ordinances to discriminate against Light of the World, and other buildings not meeting the zoning and permit requirements have been built since the church’s initial building permit request.
Excerpt © Copyright 2022 Sioux City Journal, 515 Pavonia St. Sioux City, IA 51101