County sued over religion law

Divine Grace Yoga Ashram files lawsuit against Yavapai County alleging unequal religious treatment.

Currently, Yavapai County Building Code requires a conditional use permit with a public entry opportunity for churches to operate in R1L zoning jurisdictions — residential, single family homes — within the county.

An amendment to that code, Section 410 of the R1L Zoning Ordinance, was deferred at two of the county assemblies in January and February 2020 because the county oversight wanted the public submission process to remain intact. Later that year, the county changed the language of the code to allow only publicly funded educational institutions to operate in non-CUP R1L areas.

The ashram has been located on Crozier Ranch Road in Cornville since 2020. Charles Bower, aka “Swami Sankarananda,” opened the ashram in Cottonwood four years ago before receiving a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation as a church and moving the current property there.

“We never intended to take a legal course, but we were still guided to serve and support the community [after] was told by the county to desist, so we started talking to attorneys,” Bowers said. “By mercy [we] came together to fund the effort, then we prepared and filed the case.”

The church practices Sanatana Dharma and Yoga philosophy with about 10 members. They were forced to close their doors to the public after Yavapai County chief planner Leah Brock said they would most likely not get the necessary permit due to neighbors’ complaints against the church.

The Divine Grace Yoga Ashram is no longer open to the public as of February 2021.

Bower and his attorneys believe the county cannot require a CUP trial and public contributions to conform with the Freedom of Religion Act.

In accordance with church and county statutes, the changes to the Yavapai County Building Code required by the Law on Freedom of Worship have not been made.

Specifically, the legal documents filed by the church state that if other secular assemblies, such as public and charter schools, are not subject to CUP requirements to settle in R1L zone districts, they should not have to go through the CUP process.

When the change was discussed two years ago, Yavapai County Planning Department Director David Williams warned regulators that the delay in the change could lead to further litigation by religious institutions.

Following William’s warning, the county slightly changed the language later that year to hide the clear language that allows public and charter schools to operate in R1L zones, stating:

“Educational institutions [privately funded] as defined in Section 301 [Definitions] [in site-built buildings]after approval of the conditional use permits.”

In response to the change, the Ashram’s file states that “Section 410(C) was amended to make it more difficult for religious assemblies and institutions to: a [Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act] claim. The motivation for changing Section 410(C) was anti-religious.”

The main argument is that the county’s law contradicts Arizona State law, Senate Bill 1062, which amended the existing law to grant any person or entity an exemption from any state law if it significantly impedes their religious practice, including of Arizona law mandating public lodging.

“It has been very challenging, we have done our best under the circumstances and have taken this time to meditate, reflect and implement updated practices in every aspect, allowing love to positively vibrate throughout the community and our best on subtle ones Wisely do serve and exalt,” Bower said.

Sedona Red Rock News contacted the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors for comment, but they did not respond.

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