- Associated Press - Monday, April 27, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - A small southeastern Kansas church congregation filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Crawford County, the latest legal dispute unfolding in the state challenging the constitutionality of land use regulations on church properties.

Liberty Baptist Church sued in U.S. District Court in Kansas, saying that Crawford County’s zoning regulations violate the First Amendment and federal law. The congregation of 15 members contends it was twice denied a conditional use permit by county commissioners for a new building outside Pittsburg.

Crawford County’s legal counsel, Jim Emerson, declined comment.

The lawsuit contends the county denied the church’s first petition, citing concerns about traffic and saying the congregation was too small to be viable. Another petition was denied because the county said the church use was incompatible with surrounding residential and agricultural uses.

The case is the second federal lawsuit filed in Kansas in recent months by the Chicago law firm, Mauck & Baker, challenging zoning restrictions on churches. The firm, which specializes in religious land use cases, has also filed similar suits in Idaho, Massachusetts, Georgia, Wisconsin and Illinois, said attorney Noel Sterett.

Liberty Baptist contends Crawford County’s regulations are unlawful because they exclude new churches from locating anywhere in the county without undergoing an extensive zoning process. The lawsuit seeks an order blocking the county from preventing the church from using its property and a ruling declaring the county’s land use restrictions on churches unconstitutional.

At issue in the zoning dispute is a 2.8-acre parcel that Liberty Baptist acquired in 2013. The congregation has been meeting at the home of its pastor since it sold its church building in Pittsburg because that facility was too large. It instead planned to build a small country church outside the city limits of Pittsburg.

“I never thought I would see the day that the government would go to such lengths to keep a small country church from worshipping on its own property,” Pastor Sandy Stallings said in a news release.

The lawsuit has been brought under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal statute that prohibits government entities from discriminating against religious groups in zoning codes and discretionary land use regulations.

“The discrimination against a lot of these groups is very diverse,” Sterett said. “Sometimes it is hostility toward religion, sometimes it is the government trying every which way to keep from having to lose property off the tax rolls.”

In October, the firm sued Garden City after the city prohibited Mount Zion Church of God in Christ from worshipping at a Main Street building that had been used as a church for more than 10 years. That case was settled in February with a consent decree in which the Garden City agreed not to interfere with the use of the property as a church.

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