A July 15 appeal before a King County examiner in Renton could commence a landmark case defining the powers of government over religion. Church and legal experts, noting that the case potentially rivals school-prayer cases from the 1960s and 1970s, believe that it could have far-ranging effects leading to anything from the proliferation of "megachurches" in our rural areas to brothels popping up in Seattle—all protected under the constitutional cloak of religious freedom.
The case pits the Timberlake Christian Church, a Lutheran offshoot, and a neighborhood organization, Citizens for Responsible Rural Area Development (CRRAD), against each other and the county over the church's proposal to build an 80,000-square-foot megachurch in a rural neighborhood 4 miles east of Redmond. The county turned down the proposal and instead approved a structure of nearly 50,000 square feet, seven times the size of rural Redmond's largest church. CRRAD appealed the decision, claiming the structure was still far too large for its rural setting. The church also appealed, saying the county could limit neither the size of its building nor its use.
The church wants to develop, in two phases, a 63-acre site in a rural neighborhood with a building large enough to cover almost two football fields and a paved parking lot the size of the south Kingdome lot. "The activities they are talking about doing there are just unbelievable," says King County Council chair Louise Miller, a Woodinville Republican who represents the church's district. "There's kitchens, gymnasium, auto repair shop, it just goes on and on when you see the list of things that the people writing letters for support say they are going to have there and how wonderful it will be for the community. I'm not anti-church, but I'm going, 'We've got to be nuts to let this happen in a rural area.'"
Constitutional scholars, lawyers, government officials, church leaders, and environmentalists note that the religious-freedom grounds in the church's appeal are rooted in sound and ample case law and court decisions. "Any attempt by the county to deny the [conditional use] permit outright, or to condition it on a reduction in the size of the facility, would constitute an impermissible burden on the rights of the church members to religious worship, as guaranteed by both the US and Washington state constitutions," says church attorney Richard Wilson. The state constitution, he adds, "has been consistently interpreted by our courts to limit local government's ability to regulate certain activities by religious organizations, including the development and use of property for religious purposes."
Wilson cites numerous court decisions, including one that went against the city of Sumner when it tried to force the local First Baptist Church to adhere to the city's fire code for a church school. Assistant Seattle City Attorney Bob Tobin, who has been involved in four cases dealing with church land issues—three before the state Supreme Court and one before the US Supreme Court—says, "The Washington Supreme Court with [the Sumner] case basically said 'You have to cut churches some slack.' How much is the question they didn't answer." He believes the Timberlake case could be the one helping provide that answer.
The Timberlake site is large and isolated enough to serve as home to more than l00 species of wildlife, including the protected red-tailed hawk, the black-tailed deer, and the pileated woodpecker; it also includes a stretch of Evans Creek, one of the last chinook spawning waterways in King County. Steve Shifton, leader of CRRAD, says that the project's severe environmental impacts are exacerbated by impacts on the local community. The church plans daily activities that include outdoor events with an acoustic band, and it intends to rent out its facilities and grounds for the activities of other groups. According to the church's own engineering studies, vehicles making more than 3,000 trips would pour onto a country road that now sees less than 250 trips on a Sunday. Church and county documents show that it is engineering the project for an eventual attendance of "approximately 5,500 to 6,000 adults and children." This would make Timberlake Christian easily one of Washington's largest churches, outstripping even the granddaddy of megachurches, Overlake Christian, which claims 5,000 Sunday attendees and was forced to locate its new building in Redmond's large industrial park.
Church Director of Ministry Operations Ray Berry says that opponents want "a bunch of things which would legislate our church: caps on the size, caps on growth, caps on parking, caps on the amount of people that can be on-site. Our church is a living, breathing organic group of people . . . it's growing, it's moving, it's becoming something that changes all the time—to get projections or numbers and quotas and goals, we don't know that. We grow and meet the needs of the church at that time—what they need and want." Berry also says that those needs and wants cannot be restricted by government without the violation of the church's constitutional rights. The church presently has a health-care ministry, he adds, and if it decides there is a need for a clinic, "we will definitely pursue that ministry further."
However, CRRAD's Shifton, whose house would look out at the church's massive parking lot, points out that a health clinic and a host of other church activities would be illegal under present zoning laws. "Where do you draw the line? Is it after they put in the golden arches and claim that kids flipping hamburgers is part of their youth ministry?"
"Cheap land," according to council member Miller, fuels the great church land grab of the '90s. Urban churches are flocking to rural areas, where they can buy vast amounts of land they could never have hoped to afford in their previous municipalities, and where regulation is comparatively slack. The combination allows the proliferation of church schools, gymnasiums, outdoor meeting areas, and a vast array of other services. The result has been increased demands on highways and the environment, and the transference to rural areas of a service for urban residents—exactly what the comprehensive plan and the state's Growth Management Act were designed to prevent, according to Miller. The fact that the Department of Development and Environmental Services and prosecuting attorneys have been cowed by the freedom-of-religion issue has further reduced restraints.
If Timberlake Church wins its case at the state Supreme Court level or higher, cities such as Seattle could find their regulatory powers severely reduced. "What is the practice of religion?" asks Assistant Seattle City Attorney Bob Tobin. "Is it rock 'n' roll music? Is it running a hospice? Is it a school? And if people's spiritual belief is that sexuality is their religion, who's to decide that it isn't? So then you get into these ridiculous situations where you've got a brothel or a sex business saying, 'Well, we're a church,' and the city can't move them out."
Such a case developed years ago when Seattle tried to shut down the Venusian Church, or Church of Venus, which Tobin characterizes as a sex business. The church claimed religious freedom, and before the courts could provide a definitive ruling, it was closed on other grounds. Coincidentally, the Venusian Church had an Eastside branch—located adjacent to Timberlake Church's desired new neighborhood.
Frank Parchman has won more than 75 national and regional journalism and writing awards. While he does not live directly adjacent to the proposed church site, he does live near the general neighborhood.