Council Says ‘No’ to Coram Deo; Liberty Institute Lawyer Claims Violation of Federal Law

The City Council’s hearing on Hillcrest Church’s application for a specific-use permit to house Coram Deo Academy was, as expected, contentious. Neighbors lined up to reiterate their historic distrust of the church and concerns over traffic. Supporters of Coram Deo spoke about the positive impact the school will have, both on students and Dallas as a whole, and the importance of schools in civic life.

What was less expected was the appearance on the scene of Hiram Sasser, an attorney with the conservative, pro-religious freedom Liberty Institute (which features the zoning battle on the front page of its website), who represented the church and school at the hearing. Sasser challenged the council’s right to do anything but approve the specific-use permit, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“You’re required to pass this SUP,” Sasser said. “There’s really no choice to be had.”

Theresa O’Donnell, director of development services, quoting city code that the “applicant has the burden to demonstrate that [the SUP] is harmonious and compatible with the surrounding neighorhood.”

Councilwoman Linda Koop, whose district Hillcrest Church is in, said allowing a school to operate in the church would add traffic to an already congested Churchill Way. She held up a binder of 150 e-mails she had received from her constituents opposing Hillcrest’s plan (the city’s official count: of 108 notices sent out, three were returned in favor, 68 in opposition). Given the overwhelming opposition of neighbors, she said the “harmonious and compatible” stipulation was not met.

“When you set these precedents, you have to be very careful,” Koop said. “You have to think about what the ramifications will be.”

The council voted unanimously to deny the SUP application.

Following the hearing, Hillcrest Church pastor Mark Brand said church leaders would meet with their attorneys to decide the next step. But no one’s ruling out a lawsuit in federal court.

“While city ordinance says one thing, federal law says something else, which I understand trumps city ordinance,” Sasser said.

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