An Arizona Church Claims The City Is Obstructing Its Operations

( — A church in San Luis, Arizona, filed a lawsuit against the city and multiple officials, alleging that they acted unlawfully when they stopped members of its congregation from distributing food to poor families, the Washington Examiner reported.

In its complaint filed on March 13 in the US District Court for the District of Arizona, Gethsemani Baptist Church said San Luis, a city near the Mexican border, shut down the church’s food ministry that had been in operation for 25 years.

Also named in the lawsuit were San Luis Mayor Nieves Riedel, Code Enforcement Officer Alexis Gomez Cordova, and Acting City Manager Jenny Torres.

According to the lawsuit, following Riedel’s 2022 election, San Luis began to cut support for Gethsemani’s food ministry program, arguing that it violated zoning laws for using a semi-truck to load and offload in residential areas. The city also improperly declared Gethsemani’s food ministry work as a commercial activity operating in a noncommercial zone, the lawsuit said.

Gethsemani’s pastor, Jose Manuel Castro, was fined $4,000 and was informed that further violations of zoning laws could result in a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

In the filing, the church maintained that when the city adopted the current zoning laws in 2012, the church’s food ministry program was designated as “legal nonconforming use” to allow it to operate in a residential zone.

The church argued in its complaint that while its food ministry has grown over the years, requiring larger vehicles to transport food, the “scope or character” has not altered that much since the new zoning laws were adopted.

City officials informed the church that it would have to obtain a “conditional use permit” if it wanted to continue operating the food ministry. However, in its complaint, the church argued that such a permit would be “cost prohibitive” and “fruitless” since the church had already canceled nearly all of its food ministry services due to the city’s threats.

Gethsemani has asked the federal court for relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act which prohibits the government from imposing a land use regulation that infringes on a church or individual’s religious exercise.

The First Liberty Institute, a conservative legal organization, is representing Gethsemani in its lawsuit.

In a March 19 statement, First Liberty senior counsel Jeremy Dys said those who care for the hungry should not be “threatened and fine” but “encouraged and affirmed.”

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