“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” An Essay on Criticism, Part II (1711) by Alexander Pope (1688-1744). We all make mistakes. And fortunately, many of our transgressions are forgiven. Sometimes, however, the Rule of Law will not permit certain behavior to be disregarded. Such may prove to be the case in the central Arkansas city of Beebe (pop. 5,300), where a Pagan group is trying to obtain zoning approval to open a church. When Bertram and Felicia Dahl, High Priest and Priestess of Seekers Temple, sought the assistance of a local alderman to help them use their home as a pagan temple, he refused. Reportedly, this alderman stated in public that he refused to help because “that man’s God isn’t my God.”
The Dahls opened Seekers Temple in 2008 in El Paso, Arkansas. They moved to Beebe in 2014 and sought to open a church from their home. The Dahls claim that Beebe Mayor Mike Robertson was initially supportive of their efforts to relocate their church, but that all changed when Mayor Robertson learned that the Dahls were Pagans – not Christians. In 2010, Mayor Robertson publicly stated that “government has allowed non-believers far too many liberties taking God out of our daily lives.”
The city issued a cease and desist order against the Dahls, even though their church was not yet operational. The city attorney stated in an interview that places of worship were permitted in the subject zoning district (R-2) only by special permit or conditional permit, and the Dahls had not applied for either. When the Dahls attempted to obtain an application, they claim they were refused:
We had been turned down without even applying, but we thought we would officially apply anyway. The secretary called the mayor and said on the phone “He is standing right here in front of me.” And after a few moments of listening to him, she hung up and told me the mayor said “We will not be granting any permit of any kind to you.” We were then informed (though they would not put it in writing) that we could not have any application, that there would be no permit of any kind for us and that we could not speak with the city attorney as previously promised. We were convinced by this that we had a clear case of religious persecution.
The Dahls also met with the mayor to try to resolve what they believed was a misunderstanding, and recount this meeting:
As he had encouraged us with our church before, we felt there must be some misunderstanding. During this meeting, the mayor told us we would not be opening a Pagan anything in his town. When we told him we wanted to talk to the town counsel [sic] about this, he told us that if we showed our face at the town meeting, we would not be on the docket and we would not be heard. We told the mayor that this seemed like religious persecution and he responded with “I don’t care, it’s not going to happen.”
But the Dahls were heard at the July 23 city council meeting, and their request for relief was denied on the ground that they are prohibited by zoning from operating a church on the same property they live. High Priest Dahl, however, claims that 46 other properties in Beebe are combination places of worship/residence uses. During the meeting, Mayor Robertson stated “There have been allegations that this is a civil rights issue. This is no more than a zoning issue.”
Will this “zoning issue” turn into a civil rights issue, and more specifically, a RLUIPA claim? For clips of the meeting, click here and here. To read the Dahls’ personal account of these events, click here.