In a unanimous decision Friday, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a ministry that serves ex-prisoners, concluding that zoning laws passed by the city of Sinton violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA).
"TRFRA does not immunize religious conduct from government regulation," wrote Justice Nathan L. Hecht in delivering the opinion of the court, but "it requires the government to tread carefully and lightly when its actions substantially burden religious exercise."
And when the city passed a zoning ordinance that barred correctional and rehabilitation facilities from being located within 1,000 feet of a residential area, a primary or secondary school, property designated as a public park or public recreation area, it "effectively banned the ministry from the city," he added.
"As the city manager later confirmed, Ordinance 1999-02 targeted Barr and Philemon," noted Hecht, referring to Pastor Rick Barr and Philemon Restoration Homes, Inc. – the nonprofit corporation through which Barr began his religious halfway house ministry.
As part of his ministry, Barr offered men recently released from prison free housing and religious instruction in two homes he owned – both of which were across the street from the Grace Fellowship Church, which was helping to support the ministry.
Though neither Barr nor the city manager was aware of any complaint of disturbance, the city council held a public hearing in April 1999 at which a large number of people expressed both opposition to as well as support of Barr's ministry.
A few days later, the city council passed Ordinance 1999-02, which not only precluded the use of Barr's homes for ministry, but also made it difficult for a halfway house to be located anywhere within the city limits as Sinton is a town only 2.2 square miles in size with a population of 5,676.
In his testimony, the city manager said it was fair to say that the number of locations that would qualify not being 1,000 feet from any church, school, park, or residential area were "pretty close to nonexistent."
"I have not checked it out, but it would probably be minimal locations," he said.
Given this and other details that emerged from the hearing on March 22, 2007, the Texas high court reversed the decisions of the lower courts and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings, ruling that the city had violated TRFRA, which provides that "a government agency may not substantially burden a person's free exercise of religion [unless it] demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person . . . is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest [and] is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest."
In comments made after the high court decision, Kelly Shackelford, chief counsel of the Liberty Legal Institute, reiterated how TRFRA is "a reflection of the strong belief in religious freedom shared by almost all Texans."
"Today the Supreme Court has upheld and respected the will of the people of Texas and rejected the City's attempt to circumvent the law," he said Friday.
Liberty Legal Institute, along with James Ho, formerly of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher LLP, and now the Texas Solicitor General, represented Barr and Philemon Homes before the Texas Supreme Court in March 2007.
The case, "Pastor Rick Barr & Philemon Homes, Inc. v. City of Sinton," drew national and international attention because TRFRA was signed into law by then-Gov. George Bush and because interpretations of the Texas law will have implications on a national level.
The court received amicus briefs in support of Barr and his ministry from the American Center for Law and Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Texas, Senator David Sibley, Representative Scott Hochberg, and Prison Fellowship.