Case centers on church program for parolees
When a pastor set up a rehabilitation program for prison parolees across the street from his church, the City of Sinton stepped in to stop it.
Now, nearly eight years after then-Gov. George W. Bush endorsed a law to curtail government limits on religious practices, the city’s action is the center of a legal case scholars and activists say will test the law and others like it around the country.
The Texas Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether Sinton’s zoning ordinance — which prohibited parolees from living within 1,000 feet of churches and therefore shuttered the pastor’s program — violated the state Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Oral arguments are expected in March or April.
The outcome could have a national impact because the Texas law is similar to laws in other states, said Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit organization that focuses on religious issues and First Amendment rights.
Also joining the fight on behalf of the church are the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
“It’s significant,” said Shackelford, whose organization frequently files lawsuits related to religious freedoms. “What kind of powers does government have to look at a church, say they don’t like it, and ban it from the city?”
In 1999, the Legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act with help from Bush.
“This country was founded on the rock of religious freedom,” Bush said at the time. “Texas intends to restore it.”
Under the law, state and local governments must show a compelling interest, such as protection of public health or safety, before limiting the practice of religion.
Supporters said it was designed to tackle such cases as children who were not allowed to make up schoolwork missed for religious holidays or efforts to prevent someone from wearing religious garb into a courtroom.
In this case, Rick Barr, pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship, had set up his faith-based rehabilitation program for nonviolent parolees in 1999 in two homes near his church in Sinton, a few miles north of Corpus Christi.
City officials then passed an ordinance prohibiting parolees from living within 1,000 feet of a church, a school and certain other areas.
Barr’s lawyers say the ordinance specifically targeted his ministry and effectively prevented him from operating his faith-based program anywhere in the city.
The city argues that the zoning change did not limit religious practice, just where parolees can be housed.
A trial judge and appeals court ruled in the city’s favor.
Sinton attorney Carlos Villareal said the courts properly ruled that the city had a compelling public safety interest in keeping convicted offenders away from schools, residences and playgrounds.
“I’m dealing with a two-square-mile town that is trying to protect its citizens and maintain appropriate land use,” he said. “It has every right to go in and protect its citizens.”
Barr’s supporters worry that the appeals court has carved out a broad exemption from the religious freedom law for city zoning.
If zoning ordinances, a major enforcement power for cities, are not covered by the law, it is effectively worthless, Shackelford said.
“Zoning is massive power over churches and ministries,” Shackelford said.
Douglas Laycock, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan and professor emeritus at the University of Texas, agreed that if the lower court ruling is upheld, “(the law) will hardly ever be applied.”