Closing of Bible-based halfway houses violated religious freedom, Texas SC rules

Steve Korris Jun. 24, 2009, 2:30pm

AUSTIN � Seven years after the Sinton city council shut down a couple of Bible-oriented halfway houses, the Texas Supreme Court has reopened the homes and the Bibles.

The court ruled on June 19 that council members violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act when they emptied two homes owned by the Rev. Rick Barr.

Barr, a former convict, led Bible study and prayer for up to 16 men in what he called Philemon Homes.

"Barr testified that he admitted only nonviolent offenders to his program, and no aspect of his operation ever presented a safety problem, a nuisance, or a threat to children," Justice Nathan Hecht wrote.

"He and the city manager both testified that they were not aware of any complaints of disturbance," Hecht wrote.

The city pleaded to the justices that Barr could have relocated, but Hecht wrote that the ordinance "effectively banned the ministry from the city."

Barr opened Philemon Homes in 1998. He owned three homes near a church he attended, Grace Christian Fellowship, and converted two to halfway houses.

Application forms offered a bridge from prison to church. Residents signed a statement of faith and agreed to abide by "biblical guidelines for Christian living."

The guidelines identified Philemon Homes as ministry, not social service.

The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles started referring men to Philemon Homes.

Barr soon ran into resistance. He met with the mayor, the city manager, the police chief and the council. He absorbed local heat at a public hearing.

He supplied research proving he didn't break any law, so the council passed one.

"A correctional or rehabilitation facility may not be located in the city of Sinton within 1,000 feet of a residential area, a primary or secondary school, property designated as a public park or public recreation area by any governmental authority, or a church, synagogue, or other place of worship," their ordinance read.

They excluded any residences operated by county, state or national government.

They set a fine of $500 a day but Barr continued the ministry.

Instead of issuing a citation, the police chief reported the violation to the pardon board. The board withdrew its approval and stopped referring men to Philemon Homes.

Barr dispersed the men among homes of other Grace Fellowship members.

In 2001 he sued the city in San Patricio County district court.
The pardon board started referring men again, briefly reviving the ministry.

It stopped again in 2002, when District Judge Janna Whatley denied Barr's plea for injunction under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The pardon board again cut Barr out, ordering removal of all residents.

In 2003 Whatley ruled that the ordinance didn't violate the act.

The Texas 13th District Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi affirmed Whatley, finding nothing in the ordinance that precluded Barr from housing men outside the city.

"Texas courts have long applied zoning ordinances to church operated schools and colleges, supporting the conclusion that zoning ordinances do not substantially burden such auxiliary religious operations," Justice Rogelio Valdez wrote.

The logic didn't impress Hecht. "The opposite is also possible," he wrote.

"In any event, not only is the court of appeals' analysis flawed, it is contradicted by TRFRA's express terms, which require strict scrutiny of any ordinance, rule, order, decision, practice or other exercise of governmental authority," Hecht wrote."Zoning ordinances easily fall into this group."

He cited a decision that overturned an ordinance against adult entertainment and wrote, "Surely the free exercise of religion is entitled to no less protection."

Hecht slso found no evidence of relocation options. "As a practical matter the ordinance ended Barr's ministry, as the city council surely knew it would," he wrote.

He wrote that the ordinance substantially burdened the ministry.

"The trial court's unexplained finding to the contrary has no support in the evidence," he wrote.

Kelly Shackelford and eight other lawyers represented Barr. Hiram Sasser III represented Philemon Homes. Carlos Villareal represented Sinton.

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