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Land wars

"Land wars" Continued...

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 15, 2007

Susan McGillicuddy, town supervisor, said the town granted the church permission to build up to 25,000 square feet: "We did not allow them to build larger than 25,000, which would suit their needs since they only had 15 students." Dumont said the board knew that granting so little space would shut the school down: "They knew when they did it that it would be an impossible project for us." The church tried to forge an acceptable compromise: Restrict the number of students to 125, change hours of operation, give up athletic fields, and promise to pay for a deceleration lane to minimize traffic.

The church met every code stipulation, but Dumont said the township's answer remained the same: "You can have a school, but you can't have a building for your school." The board, according to Dumont, "created a brand-new standard that had never been applied to anyone before and has never been applied to anyone since, except for us."

Okemos Christian Center filed a lawsuit against the Meridian Township Board in 2004, claiming the board violated RLUIPA. In August 2005, the court ruled in the church's favor. The township appealed the case in the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and has been awaiting a decision for the past 14 months.

Meanwhile, Dumont said, "All of our support evaporated." Dumont recalls returning a $200,000 donation because it didn't seem ethical to accept money when the school might close, and eventually both the school and the daycare closed. Now the church is trying to buy another school, since Dumont calls education "the passion of our church . . . probably the most significant ministry and the most important ministry that we're called to do."

Redwood Christian Schools also has Becket Fund representation. For 20 years, the school has been leasing empty public-school buildings from the San Lorenzo Unified School District (SLUSD), but the SLUSD has twice evicted Redwood from the buildings-once in 1985 and again in 1996.

In 1997, Redwood bought an empty 12.5 acre lot to build a junior-senior high school. The lot is still empty. First neighbors complained that the plot was too small, so Redwood bought another 32.5 acres, spending $3 million for the land and $1 million to prepare it for development. Redwood completed a 2,000-page environmental impact report, but then Alameda County denied the school a conditional use permit, saying the project was too big for the semi-rural area.

Redwood filed suit in 2001. Two years later, the U.S. District Court ruled against the school. The school appealed and in February 2007, the case went to a U.S. District Court jury. Redwood lost that case, appealed in August, and is still waiting for a decision.

Now the school holds classes in a 40-year-old leased elementary-school building. There is not enough room for the whole school to assemble for prayer, chapel, or group worship. The school has no gym or athletic fields, and it can't offer full chemistry and biology labs. Attendance has shrunk by 25 percent, and a Redwood-hired expert calculated that the school has lost over $30.5 million in tuition losses, construction delays, and increased financial cost. If the SLUSD evicts the school again, it will close.

While legal battles for Christian schools continue in Michigan and California, Westchester Day School may be approaching the end of its five-year struggle. The township has 90 days to file an appeal, but it has racked up a $936,000 legal bill and elected a new mayor. Mamaroneck village trustee Tom Murphy did not rule out the possibility of an appeal, but said the village is seeking an amicable relationship with the school: "We were looking to settle this in the best interests of the taxpayers of the village and move on." If this case doesn't go to Washington, others probably will.

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