PHOENIX — House Bill 2496 would give churches the ability to locate wherever they choose, regardless of local zoning rules.It would also allow members to use the property for any purpose as long it “fulfills the person’s religious freedom.””It’s about creating a level playing field so that churches are not discriminated against,” said Deborah Sheasby, legal counsel for the Center For Arizona Policy.
The conservative family values organization is lobbying for the law.”It sets out clear standards so we don’t have to have a lawsuit every time there’s a dispute between a church and a city,” said Sheasby.She pointed out recent incidents where there were disputes, including whether a Phoenix church could feed the homeless on it property and a Gilbert bible study group that was ordered to stop disband.
Though they are culturally polar opposites, practitioners at the Phoenix Goddess Temple also support the bill.They worship the Eastern philosophy of Tantra, which includes using sexual touch in order to reach spiritual enlightenment.”Our sexuality is a gift and a gift from God,” said Magdalena Ananda, a Tantric educator at the temple. “We teach people practices to cultivate the love that they are.”The Temple was forced to move from Scottsdale to Phoenix last year after neighbors complained about their religious practices. Under HB 2496, the temple would have more protection against people who disagree with their practices.”As a basic need, we all need respect. If we’re not respected, we’re not happy,” Ananda said. “If somebody says whatever I’m doing this is my religion, this bill appears to give them extraordinary levels of protection,” said Ken Strobeck, the executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns. He represents the state’s cities and towns.
They have united against HB 2496, say it gives local authorities no way to crack down when a church is causing a community issue.”That seems to be giving a special set of practices a special treatment rather than an equal treatment,” he said.The bill has passed the House of Representatives. It is awaiting a vote in the Rules Committee of the Senate.