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Friday, March 2, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mormons join foes of rural limits

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Lawyers for the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City have delivered a six-page legal analysis to the Metropolitan King County Council that concludes proposed size limits on churches and private religious schools in the county's rural area are unconstitutional.

County Executive Ron Sims' proposal "would impermissibly impair the church's and its congregants' free exercise of religion ... " lawyers at the firm of Kirton & McConkie wrote this week.

Meanwhile, another religious body, the Church Council of Greater Seattle, has backed away from its earlier position that churches and church schools be exempt from any size limits the county adopts on nonresidential buildings in the rural area.

"There's been more thought, and some additional people involved in the conversation," said Thomas Quigley, president-director of the council, whose 400 member churches represent 18 denominations.

The size-limit question has consumed county government for weeks. Last year Sims proposed a cap of 10,000 square feet on any individual nonresidential building and 20,000 square feet on all buildings on any site outside the county's urban-growth boundary. He said the limit was needed to protect rural areas from suburbanization.

But churches, led by the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, have fought back, arguing such limits preclude them from serving rural populations and impinge on freedom to worship. Archbishop Alexander Brunett has vowed to take the question all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The County Council put off a decision last month, voting to impose a 10-month moratorium on permits for new churches and schools in rural areas while a task force studies the question. But two council members - Kent Pullen, R-Kent, and Pete von Reichbauer, R-Federal Way - have introduced proposed ordinances that would repeal the moratorium.

"Lawsuits are going to come fast and furious in the near future," Pullen predicted earlier this week.

The legal analysis by lawyers for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was requested by Gordon Conger, former KIRO-TV editorial spokesman and representative of the church's Northwest Area Presidency.

It says that, under the state and federal constitutions and a new federal law, the county must display a "compelling state interest" to limit church size as Sims proposes. Protecting rural character doesn't meet that test, it concludes.

Sims said the analysis doesn't surprise him. "We would expect them to take that position," he said. He expressed confidence the courts would uphold any size limits the county imposes.

Conger, a lawyer himself, said litigation isn't likely until the County Council takes final action. A less-restrictive size limit could conceivably be constitutional, he said.

While the Mormon Church has no immediate plans to build outside the urban-growth boundary, he said, it's contemplating a complex in the rural Snoqualmie Valley that would serve eight to 10 congregations and include a gym and genealogical library.

The Church Council of Greater Seattle's member churches include those from most mainline denominations - American Baptist, Lutheran, United Methodist, Presbyterian, as well as Roman Catholic. In November its board adopted a statement urging the County Council not to limit church and religious-school size.

Last month it dropped its call for an exemption, instead urging the council to "regulate urban and rural growth while also recognizing the reasonable needs of religious institutions to build adequate facilities."

Quigley, the council's head, said providing churches with adequate space is important, but so is protecting rural areas from sprawl. "Those are competing values," he said, "and they both have significant support in the church community."

He said the council plans to meet with Sims in mid-March.

Eric Pryne can be reached at 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com.

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