A Colorado pastor says allowing traveling ministers to park their RVs in his church parking lot and connect to utilities there is part of his congregation’s “hospitality ministry” in place for more than 30 years.
But the city of Pueblo, Colorado, says the Rev. Paul Elder and the Christian Growth Center church are violating a city ordinance that calls for fines of up to $1,000 per day and a year in jail for each day the roaming ministers are there.
The city says its zoning regulations state a recreational vehicle can only park in the city’s designated, for-pay parking lots. Mr. Elder says the church has been providing the hospitality service for more than 30 years, and that the city had permitted the water, electrical and sewer connections the church installed in its current location in 2011.
“They knew that we had RV hookups there,” Mr. Elder said in an interview. “And for 10 years, we parked RVs regularly there with no one from the city ever came out and tried to make a stop. So it was a bit of a surprise when we were cited last year,” he added.
The case is now in federal court in Denver, and Andrew Nussbaum the church’s attorney, is hoping for a settlement before a trial begins.
Mr. Nussbaum contends the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 shields the church from the zoning regulation.
At issue is the church’s argument that the parking ban “imposes a substantial burden” on the church’s right to religious freedom, as providing hospitality is part of how the congregation practices its faith.
Mr. Nussbaum told The Washington Times the city’s position is puzzling.
“The only thing the city has said to us in writing publicly at any time during the negotiations is that they have a compelling interest in public health and safety, to require that all RV usage occurs in city-sanctioned RV parks,” he said.
“The problem with that assertion is that the RV hospitality ministry has been going on literally for 30 years without incident. So you’d think that if it was a grave danger to public health and safety, they would have noticed a violation sometime in the last three decades,” he added.
A spokeswoman for the city of Pueblo said they do not comment on pending litigation.
Mr. Elder said allowing traveling preachers and their RVs to park at the church “is a very important part of our ministry.”
He added, “It is a total ministry of our church to serve those families for a short period of time, and is our intent that we win the privilege and the right to minister without [the city] defining how we can minister.”