Court Settlement Clears Path for Church Construction in Walthill
By Bill Kelly , Senior Producer/Reporter Nebraska Public Media
Nov. 23, 2021, 2 p.m. ·
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After a drawn-out battle in federal court, The Light of the World Gospel Ministries may soon be able to build a church in the Main Street business district in Walthill, Nebraska.
The village will also pay the church $500,000 as part of a settlement likely to be used for the organization's legal fees.
Court documents on file in the federal lawsuit and recent actions taken by the town board verify the two sides reached a mediated agreement allowing Light of the World to build the new church facility. Records on file estimate the cost of the project at $2.8 million.
According to the consent decree, the church "agreed to add certain design features to its facility," including "separate commercial business entrances" in which the church will operate. Some in the community were concerned having a church on the town's main street might change the character of what had traditionally been a place for shops, eating establishments, and other services.
According to the decree, the village board agreed The Light of the World could "construct its church facility and signed the permits needed for the Church to do so."
In 2018, The Light of the World filed a lawsuit after the Village of Walthill denied zoning for the church. The church, represented by First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based Christian legal organization, claimed the congregation faced religious persecution.
In 2020, the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice filed its action claiming the denial of a zoning change was a violation of a federal law covering land use and religious organizations. Tom Kelley, U.S. Attorney for Nebraska at the time, said the village put a "substantial burden" on the church.
Legal briefs filed by attorneys for the village defended its decision, noting the board agreed the church could build a facility as long as it met the town's guidelines regulating the business district. The church, it was claimed, proposed one building plan in talks with civic leaders but filed a differing plan without any businesses when submitting paperwork for the zoning change.
When the village board met on September 1st, a majority of the board voted to approve the zoning, demolition of existing buildings, construction of the new facility, and the $500,000 financial settlement.
Court filings show the cash payment, apparently paid for through insurance carried by the town. The court records indicate at least four law firms involved in the case at various times claim to deserve a portion of the settlement money.
The Light of the World Ministries is the creation of its pastor, Paul Malcomson, a former Irish police officer, who moved to the community because he felt compelled to share his interpretation of Christianity with the Native American community making up just over half of Thurston County.
A series of court filings in the case indicate the two parties, attempting to avoid taking the case to trial, worked out a settlement.
In an agreement, waiting for final approval from the judge, The Light of the World can build its church in the Walthill business district. Returning to the project are two storefronts flanking the church entrance to meet the village's goal of emphasizing the commercial character of that part of town.
The architect's drawings show signage for a coffee shop and a religious bookstore. Demolition of the existing vacant buildings could begin soon.
The settlement may clear the way for dropping the separate federal case filed by the federal Office of Civil Rights. Court records do not indicate any recent action taken to advance a settlement. The settlement between the church and village must also gain the approval of the Department of Justice. The office of the U.S. Attorney for Nebraska has yet to reply to a request for comment.
Attorneys for First Liberty Institute would not make themselves available for questions about the contents of the specifics or plans for construction. In an email statement, attorney Roger Byron wrote, "Light of the World just wants to be able to minister to the people of the village and the surrounding area and help revitalize the community." He added the congregation hopes "to transform the dilapidated and undeveloped property into a new space to serve all village residents."
Earlier in November, Pastor Malcomson made indirect reference to the settlement from the pulpit, citing the church's progress during an eight-part sermon entitled "Jesus is Totally in Control" posted on the church's website.
"And young children in this house, please know that you are seeing God provide for us as a church. Despite the odds, despite everything, there has never been anything that I know of in this church that God has never met."
Gesturing to a floor plan of the project behind his pulpit, Malcomson asked parishioners, "Why would I worry about this?"
"I'm not saying there are times I don't wobble. It's like, 'I do not know how we're going to raise two and a half million.'" Adding a reference to Psalm 50 in the Bible, he underscored his faith in meeting the goal. "Lord, you own cattle on a thousand hills. This is not my church. This is your church."
The village's attorney on the case declined to comment, and attempts to reach the village offices were unsuccessful.
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