After twice being denied a conditional use permit for a “small country church,” Liberty Baptist Church has filed a lawsuit against Crawford County in federal court.
Liberty Baptist Church filed a lawsuit on Monday in U.S. District Court in Wichita claiming that its right to build a church at 1714 W. 20th St. was unlawfullly denied on religious freedom grounds.
The congregation, made up of 15 members, first applied for a conditional land use for the site on Sept. 12, 2013. Although the County Regional Planning and Zoning Board voted 5-0 for recommending approval, the Crawford County Commission voted 2-1 on Nov. 19, 2013, to deny the conditional land use after hearing objections from local landowners.
The board cited four reasons to deny the land use: 1) the proposed use was not in the same general character of the neighborhood; 2) safety concerns about the narrow road and sight lines; 3) residents’ concerns about activity on church grounds when the property was not in use; and 4) concern from neighboring landowners about the viability of the church leading to an empty structure.
This decision was appealed to the state district court, which found on Dec. 29, 2014 that the county’s decision was “reasonable.”
After waiting the required year, the Liberty Baptist Church filed again for a conditional use permit on Jan. 19, 2015. The Planning and Zoning Board voted 5-1 to recommend approval.
On March 17, the County Commission again voted to deny the application, this time voting 3-0 and citing the same two reasons as the first application as reasons for denial. That denial also came after objections from local landowners near the property, including Joe and Frank Andrew, and Bill Burk.
According to the details of the complaint filed with the U.S. District Court in Wichita, the church is seeking protection under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That act, requires governments to have a “compelling” reason to “forbid where people may worship,” according to the complaint.
One of Liberty Baptist’s attorneys, Noel Sterett, Mauck and Baker LLC out of Chicago, Ill., said that none of the reasons cited in either of the board’s denials would constitute as “compelling” under federal law. He also called the County Commission’s decision “arbitrary” and “not sufficient to deny a religious use.”
The lawsuit further says that none of the seven county zoning districts allow any churches or religious assemblies, forcing churches to go through the “discretionary, costly and time-consuming process of seeking a zoning amendment and receive a conditional use permit.”
The cost of filing for a conditional use permit is $225, which the church has now paid twice.
Crawford County Counselor Jim Emerson said that he was not surprised to hear of the pending lawsuit, but had yet to see a copy when contacted by the Morning Sun. Further, he said that the zoning regulations are not biased against churches.
“Any party can file for conditional use on any property in the county. It’s not necessarily tied to churches. They have just as much right to file a zoning case as anybody else. [The outcome] depends on the factors involved in each case,” Emerson said.
The lawsuit at this point is just a complaint, according to Sterett, until contact can be made with the County Commission. If an agreement can’t be reached with the county, then the Liberty Baptist attorneys would file a preliminary injunction to prevent the county from letting the church use its property for worship.
Eventually, if no agreement could be reached, then the lawsuit asks the court to award costs and expenses, including reasonable attorney’s fees, damages and more. Sterett did not give a potential price on those fees and damages.
Emerson said the county would consider its options at a later date.
“As far as getting into the suit, we’ll respond once we’ve seen the lawsuit and have had a chance to look it over,” Emerson said.