It Worked--U.S. City Reverses Ordinance After Adventist Church's Complaint
Texico Conference last year filed suit on religious liberty grounds
Seventh-day Adventist Church legal counsel said they’re pleased by a United States city’s reversal of an ordinance they said violated religious expression and unfairly targeted pastor-led faith groups, especially Latino churches. Las Cruces, New Mexico, last month changed an ordinance that required churches to register with the city and pay fees, a move that came six months after the Adventist Church filed suit against the city. A city spokesman last year said the ordinance aimed to provide information for the city’s obligation to provide citizens with fire and police protection. Adventist Church officials alleged that it violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
The city changed the ordinance on March 17 to no longer require non-profit organizations to pay registration fees, and the Adventist Church subsequently dismissed its lawsuit from the U.S. District Court of New Mexico. “We’re very happy that the new ordinance addresses both the city’s legitimate fire and safety concerns and our concerns about governmental interference with churches,” said Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the Adventist Church. The original Las Cruces Ordinance No. 16-131, passed in 1997, defined a business as “any profession, trade or occupation and all and every kind of calling,” including the work of pastors, priests, rabbis, bishops, imams, and other religious leaders.
The ordinance essentially required all pastor-led churches within city limits to register with the city, pay a registration fee and pass a discretionary review process before gaining approval to conduct worship services or provide pastoral care. Faith groups that are lay-led rather than clergy-led were not subject to the requirements, lawyers said. Early last year, city officials threatened to take legal action against the Las Cruces Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church if it failed to comply with the requirements of the business registration ordinance. There are more than 100 churches within the Las Cruces city limits, but the ordinance, Adventist lawyers said, had been applied only to a small percentage of these churches and, according to the Adventist Church’s complaint, “disparately applied to single out Hispanic and Latino churches.” In June, the city first notified the Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church that it had seven days to comply with the requirements or face “court action,” according to a letter from the city’s Codes Enforcement Department. However, the Las Cruces Central Seventh-day Adventist Church, a majority non-Latino congregation, received no such notice, McFarland said.
The Adventist Church filed the lawsuit in September through its Texico Conference, headquartered in the Albuquerque suburb of Corrales. “I think it was great that we did what we did in challenging it,” said Lee-Roy Chacon, president of the Texico Conference. “Now that it’s overturned we can continue doing ministry instead of having to act as a business.” The Texico Conference oversees church operations in West Texas and New Mexico, where it maintains approximately 80 churches and supports a membership of 12,000.