With a son in a Phoenix Episcopal school, Vernon B. Parker believes he has a stake in what he says are Scottsdale’s attempts to restrict church activities and the location of religious schools. Scottsdale officials are considering two proposals to deal with large assemblies of people in residential neighborhoods.
But local church leaders, and even some clergy outside of the city, say the rules would unfairly target houses of worship.
“You’re looking at a huge issue that has the potential of changing the whole landscape, not just in Scottsdale but the whole country,” said Parker, who is running a public relations campaign pro bono for a coalition of up to 200 churches formed to oppose the laws.
The first city proposal would mandate new schools in residential areas be at least a quarter-mile apart. One of the consequences could be that established churches would be unable to found an on-site religious school if there is another private school nearby.
The second proposal would require “large assemblies,” such as churches and private schools, to get permits to operate in neighborhoods. Some church leaders worry the permit could restrict when churches can hold services, how large congregations can grow and whether they can have nearby religious schools.
Parker, head of the Phoenix-based VBP Group, said he’s concerned such laws could overflow the borders of Scottsdale and be adopted by other communities.
Meanwhile, Scottsdale officials are busy drafting a “white paper” intended to reach a compromise acceptable to all parties. The paper is expected to take into account the objections of the churches.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions with them about what their concerns are,” said Frank Gray, city project manager. “They’re part of the community.”
Parker became involved when he learned the vice principal of his son’s school sits on the board of SonRise Community Church, which is suing Scottsdale over its decision to deny SonRise a permit to build a church and a private school on a roughly 9-acre parcel south of the intersection of Scottsdale Road and Dixileta Drive.
In the face of neighbors’ complaints that the school would be incompatible with the neighborhood and increase traffic in the area unreasonably thus creating a safety hazard, the City Council voted unanimously last year to deny the church a school permit.
SonRise argues the council’s denial amounted to an abridgement of the church’s rights to free speech, religion, assembly and due process, according to the church’s federal court complaint.
The issue led city officials to attempt to craft overarching laws governing churches and other large-scale activities in residential neighborhoods.
Parker said the churches weren’t politically savvy, at first.
“I provided free advice to them for a long time because they didn’t understand the political process,” Parker said. “They were up against a very organized and well-funded neighborhood opposition.”
One of his fears is that the regulations could be adopted by other cities. And he is not alone in his concern. The two proposed laws have sent ripples beyond Scottsdale’s borders.
Institutions like the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix and the Arizona Assemblies of God have begun to weigh in. Many are worried not only about the proposed laws’ impact on worship services and religious schooling, but also that a precedent might be set here that could seep into other communities.
David Friend, a pastor at the Scottsdale Dream Center First Assembly of God, is one of the coordinators of the coalition.
“We don’t feel it’s the city’s responsibility to put more restrictions on churches,” he said.
He said the coalition of churches is not taking a position on the SonRise lawsuit. But they are against city attempts to circumscribe religious freedom, he said.
“I totally disagree with the concept of that. They’re just going too far,” he said.
He said he’s not opposed to reasonable restrictions on development.
“We’re not fighting height restrictions and setbacks (from property lines) and noise restrictions,” Friend said.
However, he said what he sees as the city’s attempts to restrict the hours of church operations, to crack down on such things as youth concerts and to hinder religious schooling, are worrisome.
“That’s insanity. This is America and we still have a right to assemble,” Friend said.
The statewide Assemblies of God organization, which includes 220 churches, has staked out a position against the laws as well for fear of the precedent that might be set, he said.
“If it passes here, it will flow all over the place. It’s a battle,” Friend said. “It’s a very serious thing because they want to restrict so much of what we do.”
That a broad array of religious denominations have come together to express their opposition to the proposed laws is telling, he said.
“We’re trying to get them to be in agreement with their congregations that they are opposed to the amendment. We’re taking a very hard line,” he said. “Very seldom do you find things that all the churches can agree upon.”
Michael Haran, general counsel for the Catholic diocese, said the organization is worried about several Catholic churches in Scottsdale.
“I don’t know why they’re doing it. Once again this looks like a solution desperately looking for a problem,” Haran said.
The diocese is asking its parishioners to contact their government representatives to urge them to oppose the laws, he said.
“Putting in schools is part of what churches do. Where else are you going to put schools but in residential neighborhoods?” Haran asked.
Gray said a white paper is due out Friday that will present a recommendation on what regulations the city should implement. The council could act on the recommendation early next year, he said.
“It evaluates different ways of approaching large places of assembly in residential areas, and how and where it is appropriate to place them,” he said.
Mayor Mary Manross couldn’t be reached for comment.
City staff have been examining other communities’s ordinances in hope of finding an example that could be used in Scottsdale. The responses of other cities range widely.
“There is no common thread, really,” Gray said.