April 25, 2014

It Worked--U.S. City Reverses Ordinance After Adventist Church's Complaint

Seventh-day Adventist Church legal counsel said
they’re pleased by a United States city’s reversal of an ordinance they said
violated religious expression and unfairly targeted pastor-led faith groups,
especially Latino churches. Las Cruces, New Mexico, last month changed an
ordinance that required churches to register with the city and pay fees, a move
that came six months after the Adventist Church filed suit
against the city. A city spokesman last year said the ordinance aimed to
provide information for the city’s obligation to provide citizens with fire and
police protection. Adventist Church officials alleged that it violated the
First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. city of Las Cruces in the state of New Mexico reversed an ordinance that the Adventist Church claimed violated religious freedom. The ordinance was changed after the Adventist Church's Texico Conference filed a complaint in court. The Texico Conference headquarters, shown here, is located in Corrales, New Mexico. [ANN file photo by Sue Hinkle]The city changed the
ordinance on March 17 to no longer require non-profit organizations to pay
registration fees, and the Adventist Church subsequently dismissed its lawsuit
from the U.S. District Court of New Mexico. “We’re very happy that the new
ordinance addresses both the city’s legitimate fire and safety concerns and our
concerns about governmental interference with churches,” said Todd McFarland,
associate general counsel for the Adventist Church. The original Las Cruces
Ordinance No. 16-131, passed in 1997, defined a business as “any profession,
trade or occupation and all and every kind of calling,” including the work of
pastors, priests, rabbis, bishops, imams, and other religious leaders.

The ordinance essentially required all pastor-led
churches within city limits to register with the city, pay a registration fee
and pass a discretionary review process before gaining approval to conduct
worship services or provide pastoral care. Faith groups that are lay-led rather
than clergy-led were not subject to the requirements, lawyers said. Early last
year, city officials threatened to take legal action against the Las Cruces
Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church if it failed to comply with the
requirements of the business registration ordinance. There are more than 100
churches within the Las Cruces city limits, but the ordinance, Adventist
lawyers said, had been applied only to a small percentage of these churches
and, according to the Adventist Church’s complaint, “disparately applied to
single out Hispanic and Latino churches.” In June, the city first notified the
Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church that it had seven days to comply with the
requirements or face “court action,” according to a letter from the city’s
Codes Enforcement Department. However, the Las Cruces Central Seventh-day
Adventist Church, a majority non-Latino congregation, received no such notice,
McFarland said.

The Adventist Church filed the lawsuit in September
through its Texico Conference, headquartered in the Albuquerque suburb of
Corrales. “I think it was great that we did what we did in challenging it,”
said Lee-Roy Chacon, president of the Texico Conference. “Now that it’s
overturned we can continue doing ministry instead of having to act as a
business.” The Texico Conference oversees church operations in West Texas and
New Mexico, where it maintains approximately 80 churches and supports a
membership of 12,000.