Riverside Church of Big Lake has sued the city of St. Michael, claiming it discriminated against the church when it refused to let it open a second location in a former movie theater.
In a suit filed last week in U.S. District Court, Riverside claims St. Michael has infringed on the church’s constitutional rights of free speech and religious assembly. The suit also cites the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits cities from placing an “undue burden” on religious organizations looking to buy or rent space.
The suit comes nearly a year after St. Michael told Riverside that the city’s zoning rules didn’t allow churches in commercial districts like the one where the theater building is located. The zoning rules are part of the city’s comprehensive plan.
Last November, St. Michael’s City Council denied Riverside’s request for a zoning change and adopted a new ordinance prohibiting the city from considering any new or expanded theater or church facilities for up to one year.
The suit seeks to stop the city from enforcing the ordinances, and also seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Representatives of the church last week declined to comment directly on the suit. In a letter on its website, Riverside’s Senior Pastor Tom Lundeen said, “We want St. Michael’s ordinances to be fair … the city’s refusal to allow our church to use the theater has unfortunately brought us to the difficult choice to pursue this lawsuit.”
George Hoff, an attorney for St. Michael, said Monday, “It is our intention to vigorously defend the city against the allegations.” He said a response will be submitted to the court Friday.
In its suit, Riverside said it has been in Big Lake since 1973 and expanded that facility several times, most recently in 2013. The church holds multiple services each week. Sam Diehl, an attorney for the church, said attendance varies from about 350 to 700 people.
According to the suit, Riverside has had a long-term plan to expand beyond Big Lake and identified the former CineMagic Theatres building as an ideal location. The church had plans to simultaneously broadcast services in Big Lake and St. Michael, projecting services on the theater’s screens.
But when the church approached the city with the plan, it was told that churches are better suited to residential districts and that it would have to get the theater site rezoned or have the ordinance amended to allow a church in the commercial area.
Riverside began seeking the ordinance change last summer, meanwhile agreeing to buy the theater, which had closed in 2010, from Cinemasota Inc.
According to the suit, the purchase agreement required the deal to be closed by Dec. 1, 2014. The suit says that the following day, St. Michael published a statement on its website saying it had rejected Riverside’s plan because of traffic safety issues and that the church would not agree to “an enforceable worship space limit.”
The suit says that, in fact, the church had told the city it would agree to a limit.
Despite having the application denied and seeing the purchase agreement expire, Riverside continued to talk to Cinemasota about buying the theater. They reached a new agreement earlier this month, but Cinemasota subsequently told Riverside it plans to reopen the theater for this summer’s movie season.