June 1, 2010 (Tuesday, 9th Ordinary)

Today’s Readings (text):

  • 2nd Peter 3:12-18
  • Ps 90:1-4, 10, 14, 16
  • Mark 12:13-17

According to an editorial filed by the Becket Fund on the Catholic Exchange, the town of Leon Valley, Texas, is trying to prevent a church named “The Elijah Group” from conducting worship services on Sunday, even though the town has allowed the use of the church’s building for daycare and other purposes.

“It is shocking that a church would not be allowed to hold church services because they are not profitable to the City,” the story quoted Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, as saying.

Other ministers have picked up the story as well. For example, I received an email from the Lutheran Hour Ministries, in their daily devotion for Monday, May 31, as follows: “… let me observe the world has devised all manner of means to stop the Gospel from being proclaimed. Some of these prohibitions are threatening and violent. That kind of persecution we see in some of the Islamic countries of the world.”

Although persecution and the squelching of the free exercise of religion may exist in many places around the world, including in the US, that is not likely the bottom line of the story in Leon Valley. Preachers should know this, since it is not difficult today to get both sides of a story.

The town of Leon Valley has issued a statement, mentioned in neither of the one-sided stories cited above, that claims the blocking of certain uses for the building — namely of holding worship services — is within the law and supported by the courts.

The town says “… this is not a case about tax revenues or excluding churches. It is about a bank attempting to maximize its profits.”

The facts of the case are these: The Elijah Group offered $1.3 million to the bank to buy the property, which was a foreclosed church, and the bank would like to get that money. The deal, however, is contingent upon the changing of the zoning laws within the city to allow worship services. If the church can’t conduct worship services, the Elijah Group won’t buy the building.

The bank has an offer of $575,000 for the building from a retail group, but obviously, the sale of the building as a church would bring in more money. The building is in a retail zone, which would make its use as a church illegal.

As I said, the building was once a church, so the Elijah Group could have been grandfathered in as a church. However, a window of opportunity for doing that expired. Now the Elijah Group, with the Becket Fund as its agent, wants to rewrite the zoning ordinance to allow them to hold worship services in the church and allow the sale of the building for the higher amount to go through.

As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” We need to take into account the words of our Lord, and we need to realize, all of us, that he is not advocating anyone breaking any civil laws here. In fact, he is advocating our compliance with civil laws.

The bank in Leon Valley and the Elijah Group knew the laws, but they were hoping to get those zoning laws changed. The city was not obligated to do that just because a window of opportunity had expired. The building is within the city and falls under the city’s ordinance, and we support the city of Leon Valley in this decision.

An appeal has been filed with the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, and we will follow it for our own purposes. However, motives on the part of the bank are about profit. That makes our decision easy, since this is not a case about squelching free religious practice, as so many have cast it to be.

My advice to the church known as The Elijah Group and their friends would be to look elsewhere for a better deal. Keep your money and remember that you are here to serve God’s people, not the city of Leon Valley or the Happy State Bank. Let them keep their building and their taxes, and give to God your heart, soul, mind, and strength.

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