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Nebraska high court: Church needn't own property to be a church

By The Associated Press


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LINCOLN, Neb. — A church does not have to own property to qualify as a church under state law, the Nebraska Supreme Court has ruled.

The high court ruled April 19 in a case stemming from a fight over a liquor license being 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 because 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, which the high court said should not matter.

"Whether or not a building is a church ... does not depend on the legal ownership of the building," wrote Judge John Gerrard. "The plain meaning of the word 'church' encompasses buildings in which persons regularly assemble for religious worship, regardless of whether the building is owned or rented."

Kum & Go lawyer Michael Lehan did not immediately return a telephone call to his office seeking comment.

Deputy Omaha City Attorney Tom Mumgaard, who had argued that the liquor commission exceeded its authority, hailed the ruling.

"We're pleased that common sense prevailed," Mumgaard said. "Nobody should see this as an attempt by the city of Omaha to restrict the selling of alcohol. This was simply an affirmation ... that there are some interests that are more important than the free-enterprise system."

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

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


Nebraska high court asked to define what constitutes a church
Case arose after state liquor board granted license to convenience store despite state law that prohibits sale of alcohol within 150 feet of a church.  04.03.02