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News/Opinion
‹‹ V.17 No.24 | June 12 - 18, 2008

Neverending Stories

Scientologists Continue Fight to Move Downtown

Religious discrimination or zoning conflict?

By Marisa Demarco

By the time a decision is made, the Church of Scientology will have been trying to occupy the Gizmo building in the heart of Downtown for about a year. "We were told we would be in the building, that it wouldn't be a problem," says lawyer David Campbell, who represents the church. Though the group has purchased the building, it's had a series of zoning hurdles to jump before it can move in.

The latest is an appeal on Monday, June 9, of a previous ruling that determined the group needs a conditional-use permit to move into the building. Campbell argues the church doesn't need a special permit but should be allowed to use a regular one.

The church, Campbell says, should be considered as any other non-religious entity would be, according to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Sunday school is just a school, like Amy Biehl High School around the corner, he argued, and a store selling Scientology books is just a retail outlet. Churches shouldn't be forced to go through more trouble than a business to occupy a space, he adds. "You have to look at what the functions are," Campbell says, "not the dogma."

Matthew Conrad, a code compliance official with the city, says the Church of Scientology's use of the space should be considered according to city code. He requested the hearing officer, Steven Chavez, deny the appeal. Chavez says he will announce his decision 10 days after the hearing. Campbell expects the issue won't be taken in front of the City Council until August, as the Council adjourns in July for a summer break.

A church has to be held to the same standard as everyone else, Conrad says. Brian Colon, a lawyer who's represented BGK Properties and the Doubletree Hotel in previous go-rounds with the church, says the religious land use act slides down a slippery slope of asking for churches to receive special treatment.

But Campbell rebuts that the language in the city's ordinance may be unconstitutional or in violation of federal law. This, he says, is a civil rights issue, a First Amendment issue and a religious freedom issue.

The Church of Scientology has several hundred members in its Albuquerque congregation, says Beth Akiyama, director of special affairs for the church. It has existed in the city since 1970. The church began talking publicly of purchasing the four-story 50,000-square-foot Gizmo building at 410 Central SE in September ["Scientology Moves In Downtown, Sept. 20-26, 2007]. A conditional-use hearing was held in January.

Scientologists have moved into downtown locations in other urban areas. Some Downtown Albuquerque business owners have expressed opposition to plans for the church's relocation into the area. The church was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.