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Originally published July 16, 2009 at 3:09 PM | Page modified July 17, 2009 at 10:40 AM

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Woodinville's ban on Tent City unconstitutional, high court says

Religious groups are applauding a state Supreme Court ruling finding that the City of Woodinville violated a church's Constitutional rights when it refused to consider a permit to host a Tent City homeless camp on its grounds three years ago.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Religious groups statewide applauded a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday that the City of Woodinville violated a church's constitutional rights when officials refused to consider a permit to host a Tent City homeless camp on its grounds three years ago.

The state's high court unanimously found that the state constitution's First Amendment right to religious freedom should have trumped a city moratorium on "conditional use" permits, which a King County Superior Court judge had used to evict the roving camp from the Northshore United Church of Christ.

And two justices took it a step further, saying that the way they see it, the city has no right to even require a permit at all.

"We couldn't be more thrilled," said Cynthia Riggin, the pastor of Northshore United. "They affirmed our notion that we, as a church, have rights to do our mission and our ministry as we see fit."

The residents of Tent City 4, currently set up at a church in Redmond, were even more excited.

"Who says you can't fight City Hall?" said Bruce Thomas, a longtime resident and spokesman. "If we allowed alcohol in camp, we'd have one drunken orgy. But we don't, so we're all sipping root beer."

The controversy erupted in April 2006, when the city refused a permit application from the 165-member church and SHARE/WHEEL, the nonprofit that operates Tent City. A month before, the City Council had passed a moratorium on all conditional-use permits in that neighborhood and some other residential zones.

Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson refused a city request for a restraining order, and the Tent City moved in anyway, pending a trial on the issue before a different judge, Charles Mertel.

But after the trial, Mertel ordered Tent City out, saying it needed a permit — which it couldn't get because of the moratorium. In July 2004, a state Appeals Court agreed with Mertel.

In its ruling Thursday, the Supreme Court said that the city had a constitutional duty to consider the Tent City permit regardless of the moratorium, and also because it had signed an earlier contract with the church agreeing to consider permit applications.

The court said that their previous rulings on such matters are clear: the government can't impose undue burdens on the practice of religious beliefs. "Rather than seeking to impose reasonable conditions on the Church's project to protect the safety and peace of the neighborhood, the City categorically prevented the Church from exercising what the City concedes was a religious practice," Justice James Johnson wrote for the majority.

In a concurring opinion, justices Richard Sanders and Tom Chambers said the majority should have been more emphatic. The state constitution gives an "absolute" freedom of religion, so governments can't be "in the business of prior licensing or permitting of religious exercise any more than it can license journalists," Sanders wrote.

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"Absolute means absolute."

In fact, Sanders wrote, the church should be able to sue the city for legal fees because its rights were violated.

The church was joined in its appeal by nearly a dozen organizations of several faiths, including the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle and the Washington Association of Churches.

"It's important to congregations around the state that when they decide to engage in an activity as part of their religious calling, they be free to do so without state interference," said Seattle attorney Mark Goodfriend, who represented those groups.

"That's a very important principle."

Woodinville City Attorney Greg Rubstello said he was disappointed by the decision, but noted that the court still allows the city to place reasonable restrictions on Tent City to reduce its impact on the neighborhood.

"I'm not sure (the ruling's) practical application is going to be that significant or detrimental to the city," he said.

The permit moratorium has since been lifted, Rubstello said, and "we've always said they can apply again."

And they intent to.

"Absolutely we will," said Tent City's Thomas. "This church stood by us when everyone else said you're nuts to fight City Hall. What they did is stand up for what they said they believe in, because it's right."

And the church would be happy to have them.

"It's the right thing to do," Pastor Riggin said. "It's what we're called to do."

Ian Ith: 206-464-2109 or iith@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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