by Monte Sahlin

From ANN, April 24, 2014
 
The city of Las Cruces, New Mexico, has revised an ordinance that the Seventh-day Adventist denomination took to court with the accusation that it violated religious freedom. The denomination's Texico Conference filed a lawsuit last year in the U.S. District Court of New Mexico alleging that the city ordinance infringed on religious expression and unfairly targeted pastor-led faith groups, especially Latino churches.
 
The ordinance required churches to register with the municipal government and pay fees. A city spokesman last year said the ordinance was intended to gather information to support the city’s obligation to provide citizens with fire and police protection. Adventist Church attorneys alleged that it violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
 
The city changed the ordinance on March 17, six months after the lawsuit was filed, to no longer require non-profit organizations to pay registration fees. The Adventist organization then dismissed its lawsuit. “We’re very happy that the new ordinance addresses both the city’s legitimate fire and safety concerns and our concerns about governmental interference with churches,” said Todd McFarland, associate general counsel for the denomination.
 
The original Las Cruces Ordinance No. 16-131, passed in 1997, defined a business as “any profession, trade or occupation and all and every kind of calling,” including the work of pastors, priests, rabbis, bishops, imams and other religious leaders. The ordinance essentially required all pastor-led churches within city limits to register with the city, pay a registration fee and pass a discretionary review process before gaining approval to conduct worship services or provide pastoral care. Faith groups that are lay-led rather than clergy-led were not subject to the requirements, lawyers said.
 
Early last year, city officials threatened to take legal action against the Las Cruces Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church if it failed to comply with the requirements of the business registration ordinance. There are more than 100 churches within the Las Cruces city limits, but the ordinance, Adventist lawyers said, had been applied only to a small percentage of these churches and, according to the complaint they filed, “disparately applied to single out Hispanic and Latino churches.”
 
In June, the city first notified the Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church that it had seven days to comply with the requirements or face “court action,” according to a letter from the city’s Codes Enforcement Department. However, the Las Cruces Central Seventh-day Adventist Church, a majority non-Latino congregation, received no such notice, McFarland said.
 
The Adventist denomination filed the lawsuit in September through its Texico Conference, headquartered in the Albuquerque suburb of Corrales. “I think it was great that we did what we did in challenging it,” said Lee-Roy Chacon, president of the Texico Conference. “Now that it’s overturned we can continue doing ministry instead of having to act as a business.” The Texico Conference includes about 80 congregations in West Texas and New Mexico with a total membership of 12,000.
 
The Adventist News Network (ANN) is the official news service of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination.