Euzoa decision called unconstitutional | SteamboatToday.com

Euzoa decision called unconstitutional

Susan Cunningham

A national religious organization says that Routt County has violated the constitutional rights of Euzoa Bible Church in Steamboat Springs and that it has “serious concerns” about how the county’s zoning ordinance applies to churches.

In a letter directed to Routt County commissioners dated Aug. 21, the Alliance Defense Fund said that the county’s previous decisions to prevent the church from enlarging its sanctuary and holding both Saturday night and Sunday morning services at the same location conflict with rights the church has under the U.S. Constitution and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.

Euzoa, which is in Strawberry Park on Routt County Road 38, has had ongoing discussions with the county about its desire to enlarge its sanctuary. The county denied the church’s request in August 2002.

Increases in traffic and congregation size have caused the church to exceed some of its limits set by the county in 1989. Because the county said the church could not expand, the church has planned to move closer to town.

It now holds its former Saturday night services on Sunday nights at Steamboat Springs High School.

In the Alliance Defense Fund’s letter, the group maintains that the county’s zoning ordinance “unlawfully discriminates against churches.”

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The Alliance Defense Fund cites RLUIPA, which was passed at the federal level in 2000. Through the law, congress recognized discrimination that often has taken place when churches seek municipal permits, the letter said.

“Denying a church the right to use, build or convert real property is the equivalent of denying the church the right to engage in the exercise of religion,” the letter said.

The fund also suggested at the end of its letter that if the county does not act soon, the group would file a complaint and seek an injunction against the county.

Routt County Attorney John Merrill is looking into the issue and said that the county is talking with Euzoa about possible solutions.

“I think that both the church and the county are interested in trying to resolve this so the church will recognize the legitimate concerns of the county and neighbors as far as public health and safety,” Merrill said, and that the county will recognize the church’s concerns about having a place of worship.

“We don’t know where that’s going at this point,” Merrill said, but he said that he did not foresee the county getting into a legal battle over the constitutionality of RLUIPA, which has been questioned by some courts.

“I think both the church and the county realize that that’s a very expensive and probably not a very productive way to go,” he said.

Charles Feldmann, counsel for Euzoa, said that the church is engaged in friendly conversation with the county at this point.

“I am extremely hopeful that we’re going to be able to reach an agreement that makes everybody happy about how, in the future, the county should deal with church zoning issues,” Feldmann said.

“The issue is not necessarily Euzoa Bible Church. The issue is all churches in the county, no matter where they build … have to go through a zoning process that we believe right now doesn’t pass constitutional muster.”

— To reach Susan Bacon, call 871-4203

or e-mail sbacon@steamboatpilot.com