Colo. County Files Petition to U.S. High Court Over Church Land Dispute

Government officials in a Colorado county are taking their case against a local church up to the U.S. Supreme Court after failing to win over two lower courts.

Boulder County officials say their land-use dispute with Rocky Mountain Christian Church in Niwot, Colo., raises questions that local governments across the nation need to have answered.

"The issues raised by this case go far beyond a dispute between a single church and a small government entity," the county stated in a petition filed this past week to the U.S. Supreme Court. "These are national issues of pressing performance."

Four years ago, the county decided to deny Rock Mountain's plan to more than double its 106,000-square-feet campus, claiming that it would violate local land-use codes.

The church, however, alleged that the county was not neutral in its treatment of their application, pointing to the 1995 approval of an expansion project for Alexander Dawson School.

After its application was denied, the church took their case to the courts, two of which have so far ruled in their favor.

In November 2008, a U.S. District trial jury concluded that the county violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), under which religious institutions are protected from discriminatory land-use laws. Specifically, the jury determined that the county was treating the church on less than equal terms with secular land users, imposing unreasonable limitations on churches in the county, and placing a substantial burden on its religious exercise.

This past summer, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals also ruled against the county, concluding that the county violated the unreasonable limitations provision of RLUIPA based on testimony presented that it was more difficult now for a church to be sited in the county.

After the latest decision in June, the county decided to file a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, maintaining that, without the court's guidance on applying local land use regulations to religious landowners, local governments "face a quagmire of undefined terms, judicial disagreement and complex constitutional analysis every time a religious landowner applies for a building permit."

The case, the county argued, "presents federal statutory and constitutional issues critical to local governments."

"Thus, it is important for all local governments to have a clear understanding of how RLUIPA will be applied throughout the country," it added.

With the county's petition now filed, Rock Mountain Church has 30 days in which to file its objections to the Supreme Court.

The high court will then decide whether or not to hear Boulder County's appeal.

Though there is no specified time frame within which the high court must decide to intervene, county officials predict it will take about two months based on past cases.

Notably, not all of the county's commissions voted late last month to move forward with Friday's petition filing.

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