Las Cruces, New Mexico’s unusual ordinance violates religious expression and discriminates against pastor-led churches. The city now requires all pastor-led churches within city limits to register with the city, pay a registration fee and pass a discretionary review process before gaining approval to conduct worship services and provide pastoral care. Lay-led faith groups do not have to register.
The city ordinance includes churches in its definition of a business. It also includes “any profession, trade or occupation and all and every kind of calling,” which includes the work of pastors, priests, rabbis, bishops, imams and other religious leaders.
The ordinance also requires registration for each separate location the “business” is conducting. This is an undue burden for churches because such speech or activities are frequently provided in other places than the principle place of “business,” including private homes (Bible studies, counseling), public meeting places (evangelistic meetings) and hospitals (visitation). Advance permission could be required for pastors to conduct a funeral at a funeral home, conduct public meetings, or visit a sick person in the hospital. They are often last minute events, placing an undue burden on pastors or churches to complete the registration process before the event, particularly if officials are unavailable or if they have some reason to delay their “discretionary” approval.
Exemptions include secular activities like athletic officials and artists, but not religion. This, in essence, favors non-religious speech over religious speech, and violates protections of New Mexico’s constitution as well as the U.S. Constitution. These constitutions are designed to provide more protection for religious speech than non-religious speech, not less.
Earlier this year, city officials threatened to take legal action if the Las Cruces Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church failed to comply with the requirements of the business registration ordinance, etc.,
For it’s part, the city claims that the registration law makes it possible for the city to meet its obligation to provide fire and police protection. But these can be provided in other ways.
“Discretionary review” opens the door for discrimination. The ordinance provides no time frame for approval and no avenue for appeal if an application for registration is denied. The process could be discriminately delayed in some cases for trivial reasons, or rejected all together.
So far the ordinance has only been applied to a small percentage of churches, and is allegedly being used to single out Hispanic churches. Earlier this year, the Las Cruces Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church was notified that it had seven days to comply with the requirements or face court action. But the Central Seventh-day Adventist church, a non-Latino congregation received no such notice. The Seventh-day Adventist church has filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance.
Pressure continues to be applied to the principles of freedom found in the U.S. Constitution. In this case it is freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Whether or not this matter will be resolved in favor of freedom of religion, it represents the underlying current of an increasingly secular society in the United States that will eventually lead the nation to “repudiate every principle of its Constitution.” See Testimonies for the Church, Vol. 5, and page 451.