It was probably the lowest moment in the city’s fight to keep a Christian ministry’s halfway house for drug addicts and alcoholics out of a Goodlettsville neighborhood.
During one meeting, according to a subsequent lawsuit, several black ministry staffers watched as Metro Council member Rip Ryman said of their plans, “I don’t care what you call it. If you want to call it a group home, halfway house, rehabilitation services. They always told me if it walks like a monkey, it swings from a tree like a monkey, it’s gonna be a monkey.”
So it’s not surprising that the council, which eventually scuttled the halfway house, has gotten into serious trouble with the Justice Department. Specifically, the city may have broken a federal law protecting religious organizations from discrimination in zoning decisions.
Still, while the council can’t claim the high ground in this squabble, there are legitimate reasons for concerns in neighborhoods all over Nashville.
The law that the council may have broken is bedeviling cities across the country. That’s because it seems to give churches and their spin-off ministries the power to dictate their own land-use policies, allowing them to intrude into any neighborhood no matter how loudly residents object. Already here, yet another Christian ministry trying to open a halfway house for ex-convicts is battling neighborhood opposition.
Despite the much-ballyhooed “war on religion” that conservatives love to decry, churches actually have always enjoyed favorable treatment in the law—including long-standing exemptions from taxes and some regulations. But many cities say the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, has gone too far, and they’re fighting in court to enforce zoning rules against faith-based organizations trying to expand into mega-churches or open schools or day-care centers, for instance, against the wishes of neighbors.
Nashville’s case could become a textbook example of how not to prevail in court, with Ryman, among others, seemingly trying to be as offensive as possible to the church ministry that sued the city.
The inaptly named Teen Challenge, a ministry for adult alcoholics and drug addicts founded by Nashville’s nondenominational Belmont Church, wanted to open a rehabilitation center on 13 acres in Goodlettsville, but residents in the neighborhood were opposed from the beginning.
At a 2006 meeting, according to the Teen Challenge lawsuit, “angry and insulting shouts” from the audience interrupted a presentation on the group’s plans.
“We don’t want any whores and drug addicts or sex offenders walking our streets!” they shouted.
Under pressure from Ryman, who refused comment for this article, the Metro codes department threw up roadblocks, arbitrarily changing the zoning classification for use of the property and finding problems with the soil and aspects of the building permit application, the lawsuit says. When the ministry finally appeared to have cleared all the hurdles in 2007, the Metro Council killed the project by deleting “rehabilitation services” as a permitted use in agricultural zones. Teen Challenge was forced to sell its property at auction at a loss.
According to Teen Challenge’s lawsuit, Ryman approached the group’s chief financial officer, Sherry Farless, after his council victory and whispered, “I told you that I was going to do what my people wanted, and I told you that you would not win.”
“The city completely pulled the rug out from under Teen Challenge,” says the group’s lawyer, Larry Crain. “They were going into the final lap of having complied with everything the city asked them to do, and then the council changed the zoning code and in effect said to Teen Challenge, ‘Well, you’ve jumped through all the hoops but you still can’t do it.’ ”
Teen Challenge alleges violations of not only the law barring religious discrimination in zoning regulations, but also the Fair Housing Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. That’s because, as recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, the ministry’s customers count as disabled under those laws.
“The fact that this is a religious ministry adds yet another layer of discrimination,” Crain says. “The bottom line is that the political process was subverted here for discriminatory purposes. There’s no question about that.”
Council members say they didn’t intend to discriminate against any religion. After all, Nashville, the buckle of the Bible Belt, isn’t exactly a bastion of anti-Christian bias. Instead, they say they were trying to protect constituents from unwanted neighbors. In fact, under present zoning regulations, Teen Challenge still could operate a group home for up to eight residents on the Goodlettsville property. But the ministry wants to house close to 50 residents.
Still, the Metro law department essentially admitted guilt in a motion filed in the lawsuit and asked the federal judge in the case to go ahead and award damages. Teen Challenge is asking for $650,000.
More troubling is that the Justice Department is investigating the city’s actions. The department could deny federal funding to Nashville as a penalty. That led Metro Law Director Sue Cain to ask the council to repeal the ordinance that changed the zoning of Teen Challenge’s property. But by a vote of 20-15 this month, the council refused.
The same issues seem likely to arise soon in the case of another church ministry, Men of Valor, which wants to build a halfway house for ex-convicts in southern Davidson County. That would require a zoning change, and council member Robert Duvall has already said he’ll fight it. Many on the council are wondering whether the city will be forced to allow the halfway house, despite the overwhelming opposition of neighbors, merely because a faith-based ministry is running the halfway house.
“The council’s between a rock and a hard place,” council member Michael Craddock says. “Where does this stop? It’s gotten to where taxpaying, hardworking, good citizens don’t have rights anymore. These people in our neighborhoods evidently don’t have rights anymore.”
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