|By Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board on Sun, Feb 5, 2012
Six months after the Santa Fe County Commission turned down its request to build a church in Arroyo Hondo, the UDV church has sued. There was little doubt this would happen: The church, a Christian-based organization originating in Brazil and formally known as the Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal, already has pursued a religious freedom lawsuit as far as the U.S. Supreme Court — and won.
The organization will likely win this lawsuit too, and probably with far more costly consequences to Santa Fe taxpayers.
The basis of UDV’s claim against the county is simple: the group did everything it needed to do in the process of gaining permission to build its house of worship. And the project is well within the requirements of the county’s zoning laws. In fact, the county’s land use staff recommended approval for the church, and UDV’s application is the only church request (out of more than 50) that the county commission has ever rejected.
The neighbors objected to the project — loudly, persistently and expensively. They hired hydrologists who posited that church’s religious rites, which involve a mildly hallucinogenic tea, would pollute the water table. More hired guns claimed the roads would be unsafe as potentially addled congregants departed the services.
The church’s new lawsuit, filed in federal court last week, notes that UDV has been holding services in the exact location it proposes to build for more than a dozen years without any of the neighbors complaining.
And it calls their concerns about the hallucinogenic tea and its side effects “fanciful or misinformed.”
UDV’s lawyer, who also represented church members in their successful claim for First Amendment protection and the right to freely practice their rites, notes that not-in-my-backyard campaigns like the one pursued by the church’s neighbors — and rubber stamped by three county commissioners — often disguise what amounts to religious discrimination. Federal and state laws specifically address that issue and forbid it, she also notes.
This time around, UDV — rightly — is seeking compensation from the county for delaying and improperly rejecting its application to build. If the church prevails, it will no doubt be an expensive lesson in religious freedom.