An Oregon congregation that wants to host a Christian school has run into opposition from county planners, but the faithful at Faith on Hill Church are not backing down.
“We’re taking the county to school on this one,” Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) President Brad Dacus said.
The 50-member church, located in the Portland suburb of Milwaukie, agreed to host Skopos Christian School in August when it had nowhere else to go.
That brought the ire of Clackamas County planners, who said the church had to secure a conditional use permit for the 35-student school housed in its education wing, even though the church’s original 1977 permit allows it to use the building for Christian education. The county has issued increasingly steep monthly fines against the church since giving its warning in August.
“What we see here is a county that is wanting to find a way to keep the school from continuing and seeking to profit from requiring additional permit fees,” Dacus said.
PJI is representing the church in a lawsuit, filed on Dec. 31 in U.S. District Court, alleging the county discriminated against Faith on Hill in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
The federal law, passed with unanimous bipartisan support in 2000 and signed by President Bill Clinton, prohibits municipalities from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion without a compelling interest. The act also says local governments may not treat churches differently than similar secular organizations.
The lawsuit claims the county failed on both counts: There is no rational reason that the church should go through a costly and time-consuming permit process or that it shouldn’t open its doors to activities available to public schools.
A permit would be the death of the school, according to Skopos director Shaelynne Wachlin. Twenty families asked the veteran Christian educator to teach their children after the closure of another Christian school in the area three years ago. Wachlin had to look for another location when the church that initially hosted the school for two years needed the space for its own school. That proved challenging: She asked 26 other churches before finding an open door at Faith on Hill.
“Were a permit required, the school would probably be done,” Wachlin said. “Even if the permit were approved, the county is requiring that we bring the facilities up to code, and that would be $80,000, too much for a small school.”
Dacus said cities and counties often use the permitting process to discriminate against religious institutions. Communities that once regarded churches as mainstays now consider them missed opportunities for collecting property taxes or bastions of what the secular world sees as outmoded sexual beliefs.
Some, like Tree of Life Christian school in Upper Arlington, Ohio, take on local governments and fail. That school lost its lawsuit against the city over a bid to consolidate its three-campus facility into an unused commercial building. But more often, RLUIPA helps religious institutions, and PJI has successfully used it to defend many churches and Christian schools from overzealous or hostile local governments.
Even small cases can have sweeping effects.
“If Clackamas County gets its way and shuts down this Christian school, it will send shockwaves of fear and hesitation to other churches contemplating allowing usage of their facilities for Christian schools,” Dacus said.
Faith on Hill lead pastor Adam Dolhanyk still hopes for a resolution.
“We did not want to go down this road,” he said. “One of our core values is that we are a church for this community. Our goal is to work with the government, so to have to take this step is not something we were looking to do.”