Small town church now free to grow
Court settlement allows Nebraska ministry to expand
A church in an 800-person Nebraska village may build a multiuse facility on Main Street now that it has settled its lawsuit with town officials.
“We are grateful that we can now bring the light and love of Jesus to our community and help revitalize our town,” Light of the World Ministries pastor Paul Malcomson said. “We just want to live in peace, worship, and serve our neighbors.”
Malcomson’s multiethnic church filed a federal lawsuit in 2018 after the Walthill village board revoked a building permit allowing the 100-member congregation to construct a new worship center on property directly across from the converted funeral home where it was meeting. Walthill is a small town in northeastern Nebraska within the Omaha Reservation. According to the lawsuit, for three years the town denied the church permits to tear down dilapidated buildings on the property, ultimately rejecting its application for a special use permit for the worship center.
In February 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice also sued the village. Both lawsuits contended the village violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The 2000 law prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on a church’s exercise of religion without a compelling governmental interest. It must also use the least restrictive means to accomplish its interest, and it has to treat the church the same as nonreligious institutions.
According to the Justice Department’s complaint, the village board revoked the church’s permit after a July 2015 meeting. Four individuals accused the church of proselytizing in ways they found offensive and claimed church members held unfavorable religious views of Native Americans and their beliefs. The church said a village board member’s testimony indicated the village wanted to preserve the largely vacant commercial area for economic development by the Omaha Tribe.
In addition to allowing the new facility, the settlement, announced last week, means Light of the World is receiving an undisclosed monetary amount, said church counsel Roger Byron, an attorney with Texas-based First Liberty Institute. The DOJ lawsuit was also resolved. Byron said the church was grateful to be able to serve the community in ways they have not been able to because of the limited size of their facility.
Justice Department statistics indicate federal lawsuits under RLUIPA accelerated under the Trump administration’s Place to Worship Initiative announced in June 2018. They have dropped off considerably under the Biden administration. Byron said it is too early to judge the administration’s commitment to protecting houses of worship.
Since taking office, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has filed only one new case under RLUIPA, a challenge to a New Jersey village’s land-use restrictions affecting Orthodox Jews. It has filed one brief expressing its interest in another case. The department filed at least eight lawsuits or statements of interest during the slightly longer Trump administration initiative.
Biden’s presidential campaign promised to safeguard religious communities but suggested it would focus on violence by domestic terrorists and emphasize “inclusivity.” It said nothing about governmental restrictions on religious liberty.
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