Texas’ appellate court recently issued a decision involving the interplay between religious freedom and governmental police power, a “cowboy church,” and NIMBYism (Not-In-My-Back-Yard).  True to its name, Denton County Cowboy Church (the “Church”) began hosting weekly rodeo events in 2009 at its outdoor arena.  The arena is on the Cowboy Church’s 7-acre tract of land in the Town of Ponder, Texas.  In 2014, the Cowboy Church bought a 12-acre parcel adjoining the 7-acre tract to build a new rodeo.  It began constructing the new 61,000 square foot rodeo arena and applied for a commercial building permit.  The Town issued the permit in July 2015, and several neighbors complained to the Town to revoke the permit and that construction of the rodeo be halted.  In August 2015, the Cowboy Church filed an application for a special use permit to construct a “multi-use event center” on the 12 acres, which would “be used to house among other things, youth ministry, fellowship, and sermons as well as cowboy related rodeo type events, which currently occur and have been occurring for the past several years on [the original tract] in the outdoors, uncovered and uncontained.”  According to the Cowboy Church, its new arena would result in less noise, light and dust pollution on nearby property owners than its existing arena.

The Town posted a notice that the council would consider the Cowboy Church’s application whether to rezone the 12-acre parcel from Single Family Residential to Agricultural (in keeping with the rural location).  The notice also stated that “[t]he event center is considered to be part of the church and should be allowed under the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.”

Prior to the council’s rezone and approval of the special permit application, several neighbors sued both the Cowboy Church and the Town, arguing that construction of the rodeo arena violated the Town’s ordinances, the Town’s decision to rezone the property was illegal spot zoning, would constitute a regulatory taking of the neighbors’ property interests (due to the Town’s (lack of) enforcement of its zoning ordinances), and that the new arena should be barred because it would create a private nuisance.

The Texas Court of Appeals largely found for the Town and the Cowboy Church.  It concluded that many of the neighbors’ claims against the Town failed because they were subject to government immunity.  However, the neighbors’ claims under the Texas Open Meetings Act could proceed, since the Town was not immune from them.  The Town contended that if not all of the neighbors’ claims are subject to governmental immunity, RLUIPA divested the court of jurisdiction to consider the claims.  In effect, the Town argued that RLUIPA is a trump card mandating local governments to allow religious land uses no matter the effect they may have on local comprehensive planning.  The Court rejected this argument, but noted that RLUIPA could defeat the neighbors’ claims if denial of the new rodeo would infringe on religious exercise.

Finally, the Court rejected the neighbors’ claims against the Cowboy Church, concluding that they did not have standing to seek to enforce the zoning ordinances.  While the Court found that two of the neighbors did not have standing for their private nuisance claim, one neighbor had sufficiently alleged particularized injury from the operation of the rodeo arena, so his claim could proceed.

The decision in Schmitz v. Denton County Cowboy Church and the Town of Ponder (Texas. App. 2018) is available here.

Original photograph by Kristina D.C. Hoeppnersome rights reserved.