Written by Nick Hytrek (Court Reporter) from the Sioux City Journal, and reposted here. Click HERE for original article.
WALTHILL, Neb. — The U.S. Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against the Village of Walthill, alleging that community leaders have violated federal law by denying a church’s efforts to build a new worship center.
The village board’s denial of building, demolition and special use permits to Light of the World Gospel Ministries has placed a burden on the church’s religious exercise and treats the church unequally compared with nonreligious entities.
In 2017, the Thurston County village located on the Omaha Indian Reservation denied Light of the World’s special use permit application to build a church on property it owns in a commercial district. The church has countered that during the same time, Walthill has approved construction of nonreligious places of assembly, including a library and an education center, in the same zoning district.
“Walthill is obligated to treat religious assemblies and institutions on equal terms with non-religious assemblies and institutions. This complaint reflects our commitment to protect the religious liberties of all people in this district,” Joe Kelly, U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska, said in a news release.
Filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Omaha, the complaint said the village’s denial of Light of the World’s permit applications violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law intended to protect religious institutions from burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations.
Jason Grams, an Omaha attorney who represents Walthill in an ongoing lawsuit with the church, said the village does not comment on pending litigation. The church sued Walthill in federal court in 2018, 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.
Described in the lawsuit as a multi-ethnic, nondenominational Christian church, Light of the World has been located at 214 Main St. since 2007. The space has become too small to accommodate the 130-200 people wishing to attend events there, the church says, causing many members to stop attending church and discouraging prospective members from joining.
The property also is unsafe, the church says, because of the partial collapse of an adjacent building. In 2016, the church sought a demolition permit to destroy the vacant building so it would not topple onto the church. The village did not approve the demolition until 2019.
The church in 2013 bought four vacant buildings across the street from its current location with the intention of demolishing them and building a new worship site. The church said in its 2018 lawsuit against the village that the village board has inconsistently enforced its zoning laws in the village to prevent the construction. Light of the World alleges that the denials are a violation of the church’s First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly.
After initially approving the church’s building permit in January 2014, the village board revoked it later that year, reportedly after village residents said the church had unfavorable religious views of Native Americans or Native American religious beliefs.
The board also denied the church’s application for a demolition permit to remove the vacant buildings it had bought, and in 2017 Walthill’s planning commission recommended denial of the church’s special use permit, saying that it “runs counter” to the village’s long-term plans for construction in the downtown zoning district. The village board later voted to deny the application.
The village’s actions, the new complaint says, have created considerable delays and uncertainty in Light of the World’s efforts to build a new church.
The Justice Department is seeking a court order declaring Walthill’s policies and practices violate federal law and enjoining the village from treating religious institutions unequally compared with nonreligious entities.
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