Christian Growth Center's RV ministry dispute

Trailer parked at hookups at Christian Growth Center in Pueblo. (Courtesy photo)

Part of a Pueblo Pentecostal church’s hospitality ministry that provides free recreational-vehicle parking, a set of utilities’ hookups and meals on its property for Christian evangelists, missionaries and other travelers is in jeopardy of being shut down.

The program, which Christian Growth Center has operated for more than 30 years, violates a city ordinance and must be stopped, Pueblo’s zoning department told church leaders in May.

The church appealed, and the dispute could be resolved later this month.

“This is a very important ministry,” said the Rev. Paul Elder, pastor of Christian Growth Center.

“They’re not only creating a hardship for our church but for all kinds of various ministries of people who are committed to the Gospel, usually make less than minimum wage because they operate by offerings, and don’t have $500 to $800 a month to stay at a motel or RV park,” he said.

Being forced to halt the ministry would violate the church’s rights under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and constitute a breach of the U.S. Constitution, argues religious liberties lawyer Andrew Nussbaum of Colorado Springs.

He’s seeking a religious exemption from the city ordinance that prohibits RVs from being “used for living, sleeping or housekeeping purposes when parked or stored on a residential lot, or in any location not approved for such use.”

The federal act Nussbaum cites prohibits enforcement of land-use regulations that impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise.

Assistant City Attorney Trevor Gloss said in a letter to Nussbaum that the federal law doesn't apply in this situation, as it does not grant “blanket immunity to land use regulations,” and a “substantial burden” must be more than merely “an inconvenience.”

The ministry is vital to the church’s beliefs and ways in which congregants live out their faith, Elder said.

“The Bible commands us one of the first orders of being a pastor or bishop is that they must be a lover of hospitalities, and we are careful to entertain strangers, because we may actually be entertaining angels, unaware,” he said.

The church’s 200 weekly Sunday attendees have already donated more than $40,000 to missions this year from its benevolent fund, according to the pastor.

Because the church had worked with the city in the past to obtain a variance for its Christian school to operate in a building not zoned for a school, Elder said he sought a similar resolution but was met with “hostility.”

Elder said he spoke personally with Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar about the issue.

“He openly mocked the ministry,” Elder claims. “I said this is a very important ministry, and he said, ‘You can’t just park trailers out there.’ I said Mr. Mayor, are you trying to define how we minister and how we don’t, and he said, ‘Yes.’”

Elder continued, “He callously compared this ministry to a meat-packing plant, asking what the difference would be if we started a meat-packing plant.”

Elder said he replied that “a meat-packing plant is for profit, and this is a ministry — a sacrifice of the church we offer traveling ministers.”

When asked about the conversation, Gradisar said he “certainly never intended to mock or insult” the pastor.

“The city supports Colorado Christian Center’s hospitality ministry,” Gradisar said. “It’s a land-use issue; he’s got an RV parked in the parking lot that people apparently are living in, and that’s not allowed.”

Under Pueblo’s zoning code, people cannot use RVs as homes at whatever location they choose — RV living is restricted to parks for such purpose, he said.

“The city is treating the Colorado Christian Center the same as everybody else,” Gradisar said. “This is not religious discrimination, but fair and equal treatment for everyone.”

Neighbors have complained, the mayor said.

In more than 30 years of operating the ministry, and under the same land-use regulations that were promulgated in the 1950s, this is the first time anyone has complained, Elder said.

The church started the program at its previous location, at 2901 O’Neal Ave. in Pueblo and specifically looked for property that had RV hookups when it relocated several years ago to its current location at 1906 N. Hudson Ave., he said.

The hospitality ministry encompasses a host of services that tend to the poor, Elder said, including feeding the homeless, providing two portable showers in its parking lot, paying for them to stay in motel rooms throughout the city and allowing traveling Christian preachers to park for a few weeks at the church and connect to its city-approved and code-compliant electric, water and sewage hookups.

As an example, Elder said one couple, evangelists Carol and David Lee, recently parked their RV in the church lot. David has diabetes, and the couple was living on a fixed income and their credit cards, Elder said, and could not afford to go to a RV park.

“We offer it on a temporary basis,” he said. “We could put them in a motel, but the RV is their home.”

Letters to Nussbaum indicate the church did not file an appeal in a timely manner, so city officials forwarded the case to municipal court, with the church facing fines up to $1,000 per day and Elder looking at one day in jail for each day of noncompliance with the city code. That’s 35 days and counting.

Nussbaum filed a stay for the court date, which had been scheduled for Friday.

City officials indicated on Tuesday that the city's zoning board of appeals will take up the issue at a public hearing later this month, Nussbaum said.

“In a healthy democratic society, part of a healthy political ecosystem is a very wide latitude for religious groups to practice as they see fit,” Nussbaum said. “It really is an important cornerstone for a town like Pueblo for having people trying to live out their faith by ministering to the poor and other Christians, and for a city to allow that kind of activity. Federal law reflects that common good.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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