Bill to provide churches special protections
Churches would get some special protections against local regulations under the terms of legislation approved Wednesday by the House.
HB 2596 is designed to stop cities from blocking churches from locating in certain neighborhoods.
That's what happened in Yuma when officials denied a permit for a church that tried to locate in the downtown area where the city wants to develop an entertainment district.
A church would automatically preclude a bar or liquor store within 300 feet. Other cities looking at downtown redevelopment are facing similar issues.
Rep. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said all the bill does is ensure that churches get the same treatment as any other landowner.
But Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, said the wording of the measure actually would give churches more power over where they want to be located than anyone else, regardless of the legitimate government interests involved.
Both Yuma legislators, Republican Russ Jones and Democrat Lynne Pancrazi, voted against the bill. Jones said the language of the legislation, which now goes to the Senate, is "vague and overreaching."
In the Yuma case, the city refused to grant Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas the required conditional use permit to operate a church in a building it had purchased on Main Street. City officials argued that allowing a church there would be in conflict with efforts by the city and private groups to revitalize the three-block downtown historic district as an area for retail stores, restaurants and entertainment.
Church officials, represented by the Center for Arizona Policy, filed suit in federal court. They claimed the city's action violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which restricts the ability of governments to discriminate against churches and other houses of worship.
But U.S. District Court Judge Neil Wake said the city did not violate that federal law. He said the decision by the city to deny the permit "had nothing to do with the church's religious motivation, but rather concentrated on its land use impacts and the consequences to the redevelopment plan.''
Wake noted there were other suitable properties elsewhere in the community.
Yarbrough's bill seeks, in essence, to overturn that ruling, not for the Yuma case but for future conflicts.
Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services contributed to this report.