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The Rock Church and Colorado town face off in court for first time

The Rock Church and Town of Castle Rock face off in court for first time
The Rock Church and Town of Castle Rock face off in court for first time 02:49

The church that sued a Colorado town, alleging their religious rights were violated, had its first day in U.S. District Court Monday.

Castle Rock barred "The Rock Church" from sheltering homeless people in two RVs on their property last year, saying doing so was a zoning violation. But the church says sheltering the homeless is its constitutionally protected religious duty.


Monday's hearing focused on the church's motion for a preliminary injunction, essentially asking the court to allow the church to continue sheltering people in those RVs while court proceedings play out. The RVs have been empty since the town ordered the church to stop sheltering people in December, but that could change if the judge rules in favor of the church.

"We are just trying to continue doing what we've been doing, helping those who need it most," said Ryan Gardner, counsel at the First Liberty Institute, representing the church.

The town of Castle Rock declined an interview but told CBS News Colorado they have "retained defense counsel to rigorously defend the zoning authority of communities."

That counsel argued Monday that the church could execute their religious mission in ways that don't violate zoning.

Meanwhile, attorneys representing the church say sheltering people at the church is part of The Rock's "sincere religious belief." They point to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious land use from discrimination in zoning.

"What the town is doing is preventing the church from doing church things. The acts of caring and showing compassion to the needy go all the way back to biblical times," said Gardner.

Defense attorneys raised concerns about the implications of a ruling in the church's favor. The judge even asked, "What's to stop anyone from violating zoning regulations, claiming they have a religious calling?"

"Congress and the U.S. Constitution have already drawn that line in a lot of ways. It is not the government's job or place to dictate how someone exercises their religious beliefs. If they're going to limit, they have to have a good reason to do so. The town has not shown that reason today," said Gardner.

The church alleges the town retaliated against them by telling organizations like the Red Cross not to work with the church.

"We want to put a stop to that type of retaliatory action," said Gardner.

The town's attorneys say it never told the Red Cross to stop working with the church and that there has been "no adversarial relationship." They also point out that the church was involved in drafting the zoning rules for their property back in 2003.

Now both sides wait for the first ruling in what may become a long legal battle.

"We are prepared to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on this case because we think these types of rights are so important to this country. Churches need to be free to be the church. The First Amendment guarantees that, and that's what we want to do," said Gardner.

The judge plans to issue a written order ruling on this preliminary injunction "soon." That could be weeks or a month. That's when we'll know if anyone will be moving back into those RVs temporarily.

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