Metro Nashville, Tennessee has discovered a valuable lesson: Religious discrimination is a serious charge and one that can be very costly.
We represented Teen Challenge, a Christian-based organization that provides assistance to young people dealing with addiction. The organization wanted to build a facility on 13 acres of land it purchased in the Nashville area. Government officials initially approved the zoning request – then revoked approval and enacted an ordinance specifically targeting and discriminating against Teen Challenge. Since Teen Challenge could no longer use the 13 acres for its intended purposes, the ministry auctioned off the property.
We filed suit in federal court in June 2007 against the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. And, after a two-day trial this week in Nashville, the jury found that government officials violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Fair Housing Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act. And the jury awarded Teen Challenge damages totaling $967,995.
In an interview with the Nashville City Paper, Teen Challenge Nashville Executive Director Norma Calhoun told the reporter: “It’s a new day for us.” Calhoun added that Teen Challenge would now look to buy another piece of property for a new facility.
The councilman who proposed the discriminatory legislation shutting out Teen Challenge in the first place is Metro Councilman Rip Ryman. He told the Tennessean newspaper that he wasn’t surprised by the verdict. But he said he didn’t regret taking action to keep Teen Challenge out of his district as he was seeking re-election last year. “I thought it was the right thing to do,” Ryman told the newspaper. “It was what everybody out here wanted. When you’re running for office, you’ve got to listen to your constituents.”
The problem with Ryman’s logic is that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the Fair Housing Act, and the Americans With Disabilities Act. And it will cost taxpayers nearly one-million dollars in damages.
And as the Nashville City Paper reported, the discriminatory action taken by Metro Nashville still has the attention of the federal government.
The paper reported:
The U.S. Department of Justice also took notice of Teen Challenge’s case and earlier this year initiated an investigation into Metro’s land use policies. That investigation is still pending, although indications were that the DOJ was keeping tabs on the civil suit before it reached a decision.
As a good-faith effort to the DOJ and at the urging of Director of Law Sue Cain, Metro Council in July repealed the zoning change that prompted the lawsuit.
But attorney Larry Crain, who represented Teen Challenge in the case, said the zoning change reversal was too little, too late.
“For 17 months, this organization was effectively banned from occupying property in Davidson County,” Crain said. “Only six weeks ago were they allowed to begin again the search for a home that they had already bought.”
The fact is that this is an incredible victory for Teen Challenge and for the rights of religious organizations. This jury verdict sends a powerful message that religious discrimination by government officials simply won’t be tolerated. And the damage award also sends a message that there’s a hefty price to pay for those who discriminate against religious organizations.
We’re delighted with the outcome of this case and are pleased that the mission and work of Teen Challenge can now move forward.