Liberty Baptist Church, a Kansas church founded in 1947 with a congregation of about 15 members (Church), is suing the Board of County Commissioners of Crawford County, Kansas over the denial of its application for a conditional use permit to operate its property as a church.
Since 2013, the Church has met and worshipped in the home of its pastor in Pittsburg (the most populous city in Crawford County and in southeastern Kansas) (see here). It soon began a search for new property outside Pittsburg, but within the County. It located a 2.8 parcel that met its needs. The parcel is situated in the agricultural zone, but under the zoning code it is too small to put to agricultural use (10 acre minimum requirement).
While the County has seven zoning districts, religious assembly uses are not permitted as of right in any of them, but are only permitted as conditional land uses. In September 2013, while the Church was under contract to purchase the parcel, it submitted an application for a “conditional land use” with the Crawford County Regional Planning and Zoning Commission. Although the Planning and Zoning Board voted to send a recommendation of approval, the Board of County Commissioners subsequently denied the application for the following reasons:
- Proposed use not in the same general character of the neighborhood which is residential and agricultural;
- Concern about safety due to narrow road and sightlines at the entrance of the property;
- Residents’ concerns about activity on church ground when property is not in use;
- Concern from neighboring landowners about the viability of the church which would lead to an abandoned structure with no upkeep or maintenance.
On December 29, 2014, a state district court upheld the County’s denial as reasonable. The district court did not consider claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
On November 1, 2013, the Church acquired title to the 2.8-acreparcel and filed another application for a “conditional land use” on January 19, 2015. The Planning and Zoning Board again recommended approval, but the Board of County Commissioners again denied the application on the following grounds:
- Proposed structure and use not in the same general character of the neighborhood which is residential and agricultural;
- Concern about safety of the roadway and the entrance to the property.
In the current lawsuit, the Church alleges that “the County is interfering with the Church’s religious mission and growth and threatens the existence of the church.” It also asserts that its “members have been humiliated and have endured mental anguish and suffering as a result of these events.”
The Church complains that the County’s zoning code and its actions violate RLUIPA’s total exclusion and unreasonable limits and substantial burden provisions. It also challenges as a violation of the Free Exercise Clause the County’s Zoning Regulations and conditional use permit application process, and asserts violations of the Kansas Constitution and the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act (KPRFA). The Church seeks as relief declarations that the County’s zoning code and its actions violate RLUIPA, the Free Exercise Clause, and state law, and seeks injunctive relief to enjoin the County from preventing it from using its property as a church.