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Ariz. church sues city after zoning permit denied

By The Associated Press
06.09.08

YUMA, Ariz. — The city of Yuma is being sued by a church that was denied a permit to turn an old J.C. Penney Co. department store building downtown into a worship center.

The lawsuit was filed in federal court by the Alliance Defense Fund and the Center for Arizona Policy, acting on behalf of the Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenos Nuevas Christian Church.

The suit accuses the city of discrimination by enforcing a zoning code that the ADF says allows membership groups and theaters to locate in the city's historic district while excluding religious organizations.

"Churches should not be singled out for discrimination by a city's zoning restrictions," said Byron Babione, senior counsel with the ADF. "Prohibiting a church from occupying its own building simply because a city favors nonreligious assemblies over religious assemblies is not allowed under the Constitution or federal law."

The church bought the former store on Main Street to use for its services. But a city use permit was needed because it is within Yuma's Old Town/Historic Zoning District.

The city Planning and Zoning Commission voted to deny the permit in July 2007, siding with a staff report that said it conflicted with uses planned for the area.

A public hearing brought out supporters who praised the church's work and downtown property owners who worried about its impact on the historic district, which is trying to lure entertainment, residential and government-related professionals.

City Attorney Steve Moore said the city had been expecting the lawsuit and had been providing information to attorneys for the church.

The U.S. Department of Justice is also investigating the city to see if the denial violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. In April, the city disclosed the probe, which it said was prompted by a complaint by the church.


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