Christian Growth Center's RV ministry dispute

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

Religion matters so much the United States was founded to protect it.

The freedom to exercise religion is so sacred our courts reliably rule that it overpowers the authority of government. This explains why the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Mohammad Ali in Clay v. United States (1971) after the boxing champ refused a draft order to serve in Vietnam.

“We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or The Messenger,” Ali said.

No matter the cost or dangers posed to society, the freedom to exercise religion serves as the single greatest restraint on government power conceived. When individuals answer to Allah or Jesus, they relegate governors, mayors, presidents and legislators to middle-management stature.

Contemplate the words of a man who used his presidency to strengthen religious freedom:

• “We all have a shared desire here to protect perhaps the most precious of all American liberties, religious freedom.”

• “Our laws and institutions should not impede or hinder but rather should protect and preserve fundamental religious liberties.”

• The founders “knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive.”

• The founders “knew that there needed to be a space of freedom between government and people of faith that otherwise government might usurp.”

• “Religious institutions have brought forth faith and discipline, community and responsibility over two centuries for ourselves and enabled us to live together in ways that I believe would not have been possible.”

• Let us “bring our values back to the table of American discourse to heal our troubled land.”

• “It is high time we had an open and honest reaffirmation of the role of American citizens of faith...”

• “Government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.”

So proclaimed Democratic President Bill Clinton just before he signed into law the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Passed unanimously in the House and Senate, RLUIPA strengthens enforcement of the First Amendment to prevent local governments from using zoning, condemnation and permitting to infringe on religious institutions.

City officials in Pueblo seem oblivious and/or contemptuous of the First Amendment and everything Congress and Clinton stood for when they enacted RLUIPA.

As explained in a Gazette news story by Debbie Kelley, Pueblo’s zoning department recently interfered in a religious exercise that has benefited the community for 31 years. That’s how long the Christian Growth Center has offered a water and electric RV hookup in its parking lot for traveling ministers and homeless families seeking temporary housing assistance as they stabilize. The ministry, an icon in Pueblo’s philanthropic community, raises money to help the poor. Anyone can see the church parking lot is managed, orderly, clean and nothing resembling the chaotic homeless camps that routinely go uncontested throughout Colorado.

“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,” said the Rev. Paul Elder, pastor of the Growth Center.

There might be angels in the RV, but city statutes don’t allow anyone to live in one within city limits — even on a temporary basis. In a letter to Growth Center attorney Andrew Nussbaum, Assistant City Attorney Trevor Gloss said RLUIPA prevents governments from imposing “substantial burden,” not mere “inconvenience” on a church.

Get serious. The RV hookup is a substantial component of assisting transient strangers on spiritual journeys. No more RV hookup will substantially burden a ministry that helps traveling strangers. Pueblo officials are doing what Congress and a Democratic president forbade 21 years ago.

“The city is treating the Colorado Christian Center the same as everybody else ... fair and equal treatment for everyone,” said Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar.

Therein lies the problem. Religious institutions are not subject to “equal treatment.” If that were the case, they would not have special protection in the first phrase of the First Amendment. Congress would not have granted them special treatment by unanimously passing RLUIPA. Don’t confuse the hip culture’s anti-Christian craze with longstanding laws that give no weight to the whims of public sentiment.

Aside from the First Amendment and congressional efforts to bolster it, this is a move in the wrong direction by every substantive and pragmatic consideration. Society has a growing problem with homelessness, a pervasive lack of compassion, increasingly divisive political strife, and an affordable housing crisis that makes safe shelter a privilege of the financially fortunate.

This is a terrible time to disrespect compassion and discourage the kind of charity we need more of. Don’t make things worse by treading on the spirit and letter of longstanding protections of compassion, charity, hope, freedom and faith in something greater than the zoning board.

The Gazette Editorial Board

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