AUSTIN, Texas - When a pastor created a rehabilitation program for parolees near his church, the city of Sinton stepped in to stop it.
Within months of the program's start in 1998, officials in the small city just north of Corpus Christi barred prison parolees from living within 1,000 feet of churches, schools and other certain areas.
Grace Christian Fellowship's challenge of that 1999 ordinance has reached the Texas Supreme Court. The church and its pastor, Rick Barr, say the city broke a Texas law that state legislators passed later in the year to curtail government interference in religious practices.
The Texas Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in March or April on whether Sinton's zoning ordinance violates the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law that then-Gov. George W. Bush endorsed.
Under the law, state and local governments must show a compelling interest, such as protection of public health or safety, before limiting the practice of religion.
Sinton is a test case that scholars and activists say could influence other states that have similar religious freedom laws.
Backing the Grace Christian Fellowship is the Liberty Legal Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.
"It's significant," said Kelly Shackelford of the Liberty Legal Institute. "What kind of powers does government have to look at a church, say they don't like it, and ban it from the city?"
Barr had set up his faith-based rehabilitation program for nonviolent parolees in two homes near his church.
Barr's lawyers say the ordinance that the city passed seven months later targeted his ministry and prevented him from operating his faith-based program anywhere in the city.
City officials say the zoning change did not limit religious practice and worship, just where parolees can be housed.
Sinton attorney Carlos Villareal said the city had a compelling public safety interest in keeping convicted offenders away from schools, residences and playgrounds.
"I'm dealing with a two-square-mile town that is trying to protect its citizens and maintain appropriate land use," Villareal said. "It has every right to go in and protect its citizens."
A trial judge and the state's appeals court have previously ruled for the city.
Barr's supporters worry the appeals court has carved out a broad exemption from the religious freedom law for city zoning. If zoning ordinances, a major enforcement power for cities, are not covered by the law, the law is worthless, Shackelford said.
"Zoning is massive power over churches and ministries," Shackelford said.
Douglas Laycock, professor of constitutional law at the University of Michigan and professor emeritus at the University of Texas, agreed that if the lower court ruling is upheld,"(the law) will hardly ever be applied."