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Justice Department: Walthill board violated federal law by denying church permit to build
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Justice Department: Walthill board violated federal law by denying church permit to build

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The Justice Department on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Walthill, alleging the village on the Omaha Reservation in northeast Nebraska unlawfully denied a nondenominational, multi-ethnic Christian congregation a permit to construct a new church there in 2017. 

Light of the World Gospel Ministries already had sued the village over the denial. 

That lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court of Nebraska, where the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice filed the new lawsuit.

In it, the government alleges that Walthill violated federal law by imposing a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise without adequate justification and treated the church worse than comparable nonreligious assemblies and institutions.

"Treating places of worship less favorably than nonreligious assemblies is unlawful discrimination against religious exercise," said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. "The Department of Justice is committed to ensuring that governments do not deny congregations their federally protected right to exercise their faith through construction of places of worship."

Joe Kelly, U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska, said Walthill is "obligated to treat religious assemblies and institutions on equal terms with nonreligious assemblies and institutions."

He said the complaint reflects a commitment to protect the religious liberties of all people in Nebraska.

Specifically, the complaint alleges that Sept. 13, 2017, the village denied Light of the World’s application for a special-use permit to construct a church on property it owns in downtown Walthill. During the same period, the village approved construction of a library and an education center.

The complaint alleges the denial of Light of the World’s application violates a provision of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as the “equal terms” provision, that requires religious assemblies to be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies.

The lawsuit also alleges that Walthill's actions imposed a substantial burden on the church’s religious exercise in violation of another provision of the act.

In June 2018, the Justice Department announced its Place to Worship Initiative, which focuses on provisions of that act that protect the rights of places of worship and other religious institutions to worship on their land.

The Religious Liberty Task Force was formed a month later.

Omaha attorney Jason Grams said Thursday the Village of Walthill does not comment on pending litigation.

But in the lawsuit filed by the church, the village argued its permitting procedure didn't constitute a "substantial burden" on the church to comply.

Even if the Religious Land Use Act applies, Lincoln attorney Jerry Pigsley wrote on behalf of the board, Walthill has a compelling interest in protecting the governmental interest in public health and safety, and its actions were the least-restrictive means of furthering that interest.

In the 2018 lawsuit filed by Light of the World, the church alleged that the village board was violating its First Amendment rights of free speech and assembly by passing zoning laws designed to discriminate against the church.

Light of the World, which on its website calls itself a Christian church with a diverse, multicultural congregation, first applied for a building permit in December 2013, saying the converted funeral home it occupies at 214 Main St. had become too crowded to accommodate the approximately 200 people who regularly attend worship services and other events. The church had bought several dilapidated buildings across the street, with the intention of demolishing them and building a new church.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSpilger

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Public safety reporter

Lori Pilger is a Norfolk native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate who has been a public safety reporter for the Journal Star since 2005.

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