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Federal Court Orders Boulder County to Pay Church $1.25 Million in Attorneys’ Fees

A federal court this week directed Boulder County, Colorado to pay Rocky Mountain Christian Church of Niwot, Colorado more than $1.25 million in attorneys' fees and almost $90,000 in costs incurred by the church in its lawsuit against the county under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The church was represented in the lawsuit by the Denver firm of Otten Johnson Robinson Neff + Ragonetti PC and The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C. law firm.

The order noted that in earlier phases of the lawsuit, a jury had found that the county violated three separate provisions of RLUIPA when it denied the church's application to expand its existing facility in Niwot and the court had entered an injunction directing the county to approve the application. Alan Ahlgrim, Lead Pastor of the church, said "We're grateful that the judge has once again ruled on our behalf.  We now hope that the county will finally cease its appeals that have been so costly to all involved."

The jury determined that the county violated RLUIPA by treating the church less favorably than a similarly situated secular school, unreasonably limiting the ability of religious organizations to construct facilities within the county, and by imposing a substantial burden upon religious exercise by the church and its members, according to Tom Macdonald of the Otten Johnson firm The county has appealed the jury verdict and injunction, and that appeal is scheduled to be argued before the Tenth Circuit on March 8, 2010, Macdonald said.

RLUIPA was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 2000.  "Congress heard massive amounts of testimony concerning the abuses suffered by religious organizations in the land use process, and those same abuses happened in this case," Macdonald said.  "This case demonstrates the need for RLUIPA to insure that religious assemblies and organizations are treated fairly in the land use process, and to protect them from land use laws that interfere with their free exercise of religion," he added