ACLU of Nebraska Defends Church Facing Eviction by the City of Lincoln

Affiliate: ACLU of Nebraska
August 11, 2004 12:00 am

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LINCOLN –The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska today announced that it would defend a Presbyterian church from a forced eviction by the city.

“There’s no reason for the city to force the Church of the Awesome God from its home, and the city is violating both the First Amendment and federal law in doing so,” said Tim Butz, Executive Director of the ACLU of Nebraska.

The Church of the Awesome God is located on the edge of an area zoned for industrial uses. Although no one has ever complained about the church, the city has been threatening to close it down for the last year.

“The First Amendment guarantees the right to free exercise of religion,” ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller said. “A church cannot be forced to close its doors unless the city can prove there is a compelling reason to shut them down. In this case, the church is a small congregation that causes no problems for anyone. The city has failed to provide a single reason for ordering our clients out, though we’ve been requesting a reason for many months now.”

The ACLU of Nebraska notified Lincoln city officials in January that legal action would be taken unless the city ceased to harass the church. But in May, the city stepped up its efforts to evict the congregation. In a letter sent to the church’s landlord, the city threatened sanctions unless the church moved.

“We have attempted to work within the administrative process, but we will turn to the courts if the city does not abide by the Constitution and let the Church of the Awesome God continue to exercise their right to gather and worship,” Miller said.

The ACLU of Nebraska has also asked the city to remove a portion of a proposed ordinance that requires churches to meet safety standards that no other businesses in the zoned areas are required to meet.

“The city is proposing an outrageous burden on the right to free exercise of religious beliefs,” Miller said. “The current city proposal would require that the church hire a mechanical engineer and install a new air intake system with shut-off valves in case of a hazardous spill.”

The ACLU charged that since the church is a small congregation and is only renting its location, such a requirement would be tantamount to ordering them to close down.

“The city is clearly treating churches differently,” Miller added. “No other businesses in the industrial zones–auto body shops, daycare centers, health clinics and even live adult entertainment–are required to have this sort of expensive renovation. If there were a true danger requiring these changes, should it not apply to day care centers and health clinics also?”

The Church of the Awesome God is a fully chartered Presbyterian congregation established in 1996. The church has resided at its current location since 2001.

“In addition to being the worship center for their members, this church also gives back to Lincoln in every way they can,” Butz said. “They are a food bank collection point, they provide low-income families with holiday cheer and offer their church space for meetings of UNL Christian youth, they do outreach at the City Mission and hold rummage sales for charity. The Church of the Awesome God should be given a ‘thank you’ by the city, not letters threatening them with eviction.”

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