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Nebraska high court asked to define what constitutes a church

By The Associated Press

04.03.02

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LINCOLN, Neb. — What defines a church?

The Nebraska Supreme Court was asked to decide that question yesterday in a case stemming from a liquor license granted to an Omaha convenience store near the House of Faith church.

The Kum & Go store was denied a liquor license by the city because state law prohibits the selling of alcohol within 150 feet of a church.

The store appealed to the state Liquor Control Commission, which granted the license on the grounds that the House of Faith did not meet the commission's criteria for a church.

The commission defined a church as "a building owned by a religious organization used primarily for religious purposes which enjoys tax-exempt status."

The House of Faith rents space in a building.

Kum & Go lawyer Michael Lehan said the law defining a church is no different than those requiring schools to be certified and colleges to be accredited.

"This does not mean that people do not assemble on occasion at the building and worship God," Lehan said. "The regulatory definition in no way limits or diminishes the exercise of religious beliefs by members of the House of Faith."

Lehan also noted that the House of Faith doesn't look like a church, has no parking lot and is not listed in the telephone book.

It also is next door to a bar.

"The purported 'church,' by choice, chose to locate in the same building as 'The California Bar,'" Lehan said. "If somebody meets regularly at the penitentiary or in a field ... does that make it a church?"

Deputy Omaha City Attorney Tom Mumgaard said the state liquor commission exceeded its authority.

"The Legislature decreed that religious worship of any kind, nature, wealth or appearance is entitled to some protection from the activities surrounding the sale of alcohol," Mumgaard said. "The Legislature did not say only little white churches with steeples get this protection. The Legislature said 'any church' gets that protection."

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the church and city, the American Civil Liberties Union calls the commission's ruling "nonsensical, discriminatory and unconstitutional."

"The very idea that a place that has served the religious needs of its members for years is not a church defies common sense and reinforces our long-held position that the government has no business deciding what is a suitable religion," said Tim Butz, executive director of the ACLU in Nebraska.

ACLU lawyer Amy Miller said the "definition of a church established by the Liquor Control Commission violates the rights of members of the House of Faith to the free exercise of their religion.

"It also amounts to a government preference for denominations that can afford to own a building because of the wealth of their adherents over denominations that minister to less affluent people," Miller said.

Update

Nebraska high court: Church needn't own property to be a church
Majority sides with city, which had sought to deny liquor license to convenience store located within 150 feet of the House of Faith.  04.22.02

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