Church Sues Town Over Zoning Law Barring Property from Being House of Worship

Bible Pew pdBAYVIEW, Texas — A Christian legal organization filed a lawsuit this past week on behalf of a local church that has been barred from using its property as a house of worship while non-religious entities are allowed to use the same zone without issue.

The Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas submitted a legal complaint in federal court on Tuesday on behalf of Cornerstone Church by the Bay, it’s pastor, Hamilton Musser, and Laguna Madre Christian Academy. According to the organization, the church had been renting property in a nearby town for its meetings, and in 2013, a donor gave the church property in Bayview—a former community center—which it sought to utilize for both as a place of worship and Christian school.

But due to a zoning ordinance, Cornerstone Church was informed that it could not use the property for religious purposes. The Liberty Institute says that the ordinance, however, “explicitly allows golf courses, farms, truck gardens, orchards, green houses and nurseries to operate [within the zone].”

Members of the church then communicated with Bayview officials, advising that the ordinance adversely affected their free exercise of religion, and requested an adjustment to the law. Cornerstone Church presented a draft amendment for consideration, which was reviewed by the town attorney, who advised that revisions to the proposal would be forthcoming.

But instead of revising the draft, the Bayview Board of Alderman rejected the proposed amendment and instead voted unanimously to retain the existing ordinance, which bars the land from being used for religious purposes. Officials then sent the church a letter informing them “that they are not allowed to operate a church or religious school on the property, because doing so is a violation of the zoning ordinance, and that [the town] will take legal action to enforce its zoning ordinance if plaintiffs operate a church or religious school on the property…”

Therefore, Cornerstone Church is now asking a federal court to declare the zoning ordinance unlawful and in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, as well as the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It also requests that the court enjoin the town from forbidding the facility from being used as a house of worship.

“Hostile discrimination targeted against a church violates the Constitution, and federal and state law,” Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Mike Berry said in a press release about the lawsuit. “Bayview should cease with its efforts to ban this church and immediately repeal its unconstitutional and illegal zoning ordinance.”

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“Bayview cannot prohibit religious institutions while blessing similar institutions that are nonreligious,” added Prerak Shah, a member of Liberty Institute’s volunteer legal team and an attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP. “The town’s actions not only harm Cornerstone Church, they desecrate a cornerstone of our Constitution.  This type of blatant discrimination against religious institutions by a heavy-handed government is what led our Founders to enact the First Amendment in the first place.”

Cornerstone Church by the Bay v. Town of Bayview will be decided in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Brownsville division.

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