Pastor wins in court over church living-space case

Pacific Justice Institute,

After nearly four long years, the Pacific Justice Institute (PJI) has finally won its hard-fought battle to enable a small rural church in southern Oregon to establish living quarters for its pastor inside its house of worship.

On January 28, an Oregon federal court approved a settlement agreement between Coles Valley Church (CVC) and the State of Oregon. In the settlement agreement, the State acknowledged that refusing to permit the church to convert one room inside its house of worship into an apartment-style parsonage for its pastor substantially burdened the church’s free exercise of religion in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Pastor James Matthew Royston and his wife can now legally live on the church property and fulfill his calling to serve the people of Umpqua, a farming community with little available housing.

“This case has always been about connection,” said Ray D. Hacke, PJI’s Oregon staff attorney. “CVC and Pastor Matt both believe that to connect with the community he’s been called to serve, a pastor must live in that community. Unfortunately, because there isn’t much housing in Umpqua, establishing a parsonage inside the church was really the only option, and the two closest towns, Sutherlin and Roseburg, are each at least 10 miles away.

“Douglas County did the right thing by following RLUIPA. Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) decision to overturn the County’s approval substantially burdened CVC’s free exercise of religion and was not justified by any compelling government interest. It shouldn’t have taken the State almost four years to see that, but I’m glad the State finally came around.”

The lengthy fight began in 2018, when the owners of a neighboring vineyard opposed Douglas County’s decision to allow CVC to remodel. After LUBA overturned the County’s decision in 2019, PJI sought administrative relief on CVC’s behalf through the only channel available—Oregon’s appellate courts.

When Oregon’s appellate courts refused to overturn LUBA’s unlawful decision, PJI took LUBA to federal court. In federal court, CVC’s case survived two motions to dismiss, thereby signaling to the State that CVC’s case was viable and that the State could face legal consequences for substantially burdening the church’s religious exercise.

“This decision was a long time coming,” PJI President Brad Dacus said. “RLUIPA explicitly prohibits government agencies tasked with making land use decisions from discriminating against churches, and the State did that here. I think the State wisely recognized that if this case went to trial, the federal court wouldn’t rule in their favor. With this case, PJI sent a strong message that state agencies won’t get away with trampling on the religious rights of small rural churches like CVC—they will be held accountable.”

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