Today, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a brief in federal appeals court defending right of the Elijah Group, a small Evangelical Christian church in Leon Valley, Texas, to hold worship services in its own church building. According to Leon Valley, the church is welcome to use its building for a day care and counseling center five days per week, but the local zoning code prohibits the church from holding worship services on Sunday. Religious assemblies are excluded from the relevant zoning area because they allegedly interfere with commercial activity and decrease the city’s tax revenue.
“It is shocking that a church would not be allowed to hold church services because they are not profitable to the City” said Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund.
In 2007, the City of Leon Valley revised its zoning code to exclude churches from most of the city. It did so to maximize tax revenues. Auditoriums, convention centers, private clubs, and schools are free to locate in the city’s retail zones, but churches are not. When the Elijah Group bought an existing church building and tried to hold services there, it ran afoul of the city’s new zoning law.
A federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, requires cities to treat churches on equal terms with secular assemblies. But Leon Valley says it can treat churches differently because they don’t produce revenue like other uses.
“The implications for churches across the state are enormous,” added Windham. “Leon Valley wants to set a precedent saying that cities can treat churches worse than secular assemblies simply because churches don’t generate enough tax revenue.”