Yuma Church Battles Bars

church The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has stepped into the middle a fight between gin and sin.  And God won.

Normally, fighting urban blight means a church might fight to exclude bars and nightclubs coming its neighborhood.  But in Yuma, Arizona there is a strange twist. The bar and nightclub district fought a church that wants to move in, calling it a potential blight on the old town commercial district.

The Old Town District in Yuma was planned as a three-block area of around-the-clock entertainment district, but Arizona bans bars and nightclubs within 300 feet of a church.  So when the 250-member Baptist church, Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas,  bought a vacant former Penney’s store building in the entertainment district it was opposed by the clubs and bars.

The city planning commission denied a use permit to convert the building to a church.

 The church group sued asking the court to declare the city code provisions subjecting churches to conditional use permits a violation of federal law because secular groups don’t have to get similar permits.

 The church claimed violation of a federal law designed to protect religious groups from land use discrimination.  But while the church waited for the appeal decision it lost the building in foreclosure.

The 9th Circuit concluded that Yuma’s requirement of use permits for religious groups, but not for secular groups, violates federal law. Even though the church group no longer owns the building, the case is not moot because the group’s rights were violated.

The court sent the case back to the trial judge in Arizona to figure the appropriate damages for Centro Familiar.

Case:  Centro Familiar v. City of Yuma, 09-15422

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