SonRise Community Church failed to persuade Scottsdale to allow a school on its stretch of northern desert, so the congregation is taking its request to a higher power: Federal court.
On Wednesday, SonRise and Senior Pastor Jim Williams filed a complaint against the city in U.S. District Court, saying officials denied parishioners the right to religious expression in refusing to issue a permit to build the school.
The Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale-based legal team that works to advance Christian issues across the country, has supplied the lawyers for the church’s lawsuit.
"The city never said one thing negative about the religious practices," said Jeremy Tedesco, one of the attorneys representing SonRise. "The question is, did it substantially burden the church’s ability to practice its faith?"
The church stands on a 10-acre parcel at the southeast corner of Scottsdale Road and Dixileta Drive. The lawsuit states that church officials "believe that God has called them to plant a church and establish a private, Christian school facility in north Scottsdale."
Williams is seeking protection under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed into law in 2000. The act requires governments blocking construction of a religious facility to have an overwhelming reason to do so.
Scottsdale had not been served with the lawsuit by Wednesday afternoon, said Mike Phillips, a city spokesman. The City Attorney’s Office declined comment until it could review the church’s claims.
SonRise is an independent church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Neighbors of the SonRise church vehemently opposed construction of the school, which was planned to accept up to 200 kindergartenthrough-eighth-grade students. They argued it would pose safety risks and adversely alter the character of their community, where large homes are spaced out on 2-acre lots.
Opponents said the school plans would have caused flooding problems because of a wash that runs through Son-Rise’s property. Nearby homeowners also worried the school would increase traffic from parents dropping off and picking up their children.
Council members cited those concerns in June when they rejected SonRise’s request for a permit to open a school.
"At the end of the day, the city denied it primarily because of the public safety issues of traffic, and that’s what SonRise needs to understand," said Graham Kettle, who led the neighbor’s fight against the planned school.
Scottsdale’s planning department, however, had recommended approval of the permit and estimated the rise in traffic would not be dangerous.
SonRise is asking the court to override Scottsdale’s zoning regulations, which the church’s lawyers have deemed unconstitutional as they do not set firm criteria for the council to use when judging an application.
While the debate over Son-Rise’s application was rooted in land-use issues, it often veered into religion.
Williams accused his opponents of waging a "spiritual war" against SonRise. The neighbors denied that and countered that the church was using religion to obscure the issues at hand.
The result was several contentious public meetings where hundreds of parishioners and their neighbors gave sometimes angry testimony against each other.
Some homeowners alleged SonRise’s plans would put students at risk of being killed by raging floodwaters. Children from the congregation read letters aloud claiming that, without their Christian school, they will be surrounded by sin at public schools.
Churches, synagogues and mosques nationwide have filed dozens of lawsuits fighting for the right to build facilities in the five years since the religious land-use law went into effect.
Legal analysts have said the law provides religious organizations a useful tool, but in some cases local governments have reaffirmed their right to decide what can be built and where.
"It’s not as though religious folk get some kind of free pass on zoning laws," said Gary McCaleb, a SonRise attorney. "But when you’re regulating the use of private property for religious purposes through zoning, the First Amendment does kick in."