Church sues over Kingman Council's permit vote

Left to right: City Attorney Carl Cooper, attorney Matt Lockin, property owner Carol Ott

Left to right: City Attorney Carl Cooper, attorney Matt Lockin, property owner Carol Ott

Clarification: The original report on Central Christian Church's attempt to use the Central Commercial Building in Monday's Daily Miner required a clarification. The Downtown Merchants Association board is opposed to the conditional use permit that would allow the church, but not all members support that position.

KINGMAN - The threat of a $3 million lawsuit could compel the City Council to do what it probably should have done in the first place - approve a conditional use permit to Carol Ott and Central Christian Church.

Ott, whose family owns downtown's historic Central Commercial Building at Fourth and Beale streets, applied for the permit, which was opposed by the Downtown Merchants Association. Some members believe the Central Christian Church, or any church for that matter, would be a bad fit for the downtown entertainment district.

The validity of those concerns became a moot point once City Attorney Carl Cooper advised city officials that a federal religious law essentially compelled the City Council to approve the permit.

Attorney Matt Lockin, who represents Central Christian Church, in the notice of claim he delivered to the Council last week referenced the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which Congress unanimously passed in 2000 after courts determined cities throughout the nation were systematically preventing churches from opening in commercial districts - a clear violation of the First Amendment's religious freedom clause.

The exception to the rule is when officials can show a compelling government interest in denying such permits, something five of the seven members of the Council thought they possessed when they voted Dec. 15 to deny the permit. Councilmen Larry Carver and Stuart Yocum voted to approve, while Mayor Richard Anderson, Vice Mayor Carole Young, Councilwoman Jen Miles and Councilmen Mark Abram and Ken Dean voted to deny.

The notice of claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, seeks $3 million, but Lockin and the church would settle for a much less expensive remedy: Reverse the split decision it delivered at the last meeting of 2015.

That could happen as early as Tuesday, when the Council is scheduled to meet in closed session to discuss the notice of claim at the end of its regular meeting. Cooper on Dec. 15 made it clear the Council had no choice in the matter, a point a majority of planning and zoning commissioners understood Dec. 8 when they voted to recommend the Council approve the permit.

Lockin alleges the Council didn't come close to identifying a valid reason for the denial. After mentioning Cooper's advice and the Council's majority decision to ignore it, Lockin wrote: "Remarkably, however, the city's decision lacked any categorical basis in law or fact that could even remotely be considered to serve a purpose in furtherance of a 'compelling government interest.' To the contrary, a cursory review of the record makes clear that the sole basis of the City Council's denial was to prevent the church from using the property for purposes relating to the free exercise of religion."

Lockin said state law, as well as rulings made by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, make it clear the Council's decision "constitutes an arbitrary and capricious act constituting an abuse of discretion..." Lockin also said the decision was a clear violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause contained in the 14th Amendment.

The $3 million figure is not beyond the pale. Lockin cited a 2008 Maryland case in which a church was awarded $3.7 million after it was denied the right to open. The essential wording in the act makes it clear governments can't treat churches "less than equally" to the way they treat non-religious groups' the right to peaceably assemble.

Closer to home, Lockin cited a case involving the city of Yuma, which recently learned it could be held for monetary damages due to its "unconstitutional zoning ordinance." The Ninth Circuit made the ruling.

And while Lockin opened the door for the Council to reverse its decision and award Ott the permit - and thereby avoid a costly lawsuit - he gave members until Friday to do so "or the church will pursue all remedies available at law or in equity with respect to this matter."