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Church State Issues

Churches mobilize to ban strip clubs in Scottsdale

Sep 8, 2009

Churches mobilize to tout Scottsdale's Prop. 401

Casey Newton and Lesley Wright

The Arizona Republic

Sept. 8, 2006 12:00 AM

Scottsdale's newly aligned faith community is mobilizing as never before, preparing to send thousands of congregants to the polls Tuesday to support a ban on lap dancing at strip clubs.

The strategy continues a recent surge of clergy activism prompted by a city proposal to place limits on large neighborhood churches. Pastors across the city are urging their flocks to take part in battles over regulatory and moral issues.

The real test of the faith community comes Tuesday, when Scottsdale voters head to the polls to decide Proposition 401.

Churches have rallied their congregations in favor of the measure, which would require dancers to stay 4 feet away from patrons. Strip clubs say the new rules will put them out of business.

David Friend, senior pastor of the 1,500-member Scottsdale First Assembly Dream Center, said religious leaders fighting the zoning ordinance realized their incipient power.

"The (zoning) amendment has done wonders to get us in unity," Friend said. "But it's just the beginning. You watch: There's going to be a very well-organized group."

Churches have long made their voices heard on issues of statewide and national importance. Organizations such as the Arizona Interfaith Network lobby on immigration and health care issues. Religious groups have fought abortion rights for decades.

But if Scottsdale's faith community can topple a Goliath of the sex industry, which has outspent supporters by a ratio of 65-1, it could prove the churches to be a potent force in local Valley politics as well.

Fighting deep pockets

Leaders of 16 Christian churches have publicly endorsed Proposition 401. Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, head of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, and Minerva G. Carcaño, bishop for the Phoenix area of the United Methodist Church, endorsed the measure as well.

They're going up against deep-pocketed opponents that include adult-film star Jenna Jameson and executives of pornography giant Vivid Entertainment. A "yes" vote on the measure would affirm the city's ordinance. A "no" vote would send city lawyers back to the drawing board.

Through Aug. 23, Babe's and Skin Cabaret had raised $219,831 and spent $169,999 in their defense. The committee had mustered $6,816, of which they spent $2,634.

Supporters of the measure hope that if religious leaders mobilize enough of their congregations, the fund-raising totals won't matter.

"The faith community has played a huge part in this, there's no doubt about it," said Jamie Capobres, vice chairwoman of "It's unprecedented. It really is."

A growing force

Religious groups in Scottsdale awakened to their political power last year, when some homeowners complained to the city about the overflow parking and seemingly endless activities of the megachurches that had moved into their semirural neighborhoods.

Scottsdale planners began studying a zoning amendment that would require "non-residential uses," such as churches and private schools, to seek a conditional use permit and the restrictions that go with them.

Church members were quick to react, blasting City Hall with e-mails and phone calls. The campaign reached such a fever pitch that Scottsdale delayed bringing the issue to a vote, saying it needed more time for discussion.

Church leaders saw they could tap into the same potent organization to support Proposition 401 and other issues.

"We are becoming very organized," Friend said. "I've had people I don't even know call me about this."

Soon, for example, Friend wants to start lobbying against restrictions on temporary signs in north Scottsdale so that churches can advertise their vacation Bible schools.

Churches' staying power

City leaders generally are skeptical that their local organized churches will stick together for long.

"I've seen a lot of alliances come and go," Councilman Bob Littlefield said.

Terry Crist, senior pastor at Scottsdale's CitiChurch, said he would make Proposition 401 part of his sermon on Sunday. But he said religious institutions needed to strike a balance between their more traditional functions and encouraging civic involvement.

"If you come down too heavy on one side or the other, you end up either with a (politically) inactive congregation or you end up with people that aren't nurturing their soul; they're just out mobilized for battle on any and every front," Crist said. "Finding that fine line is never easy but very important."

Steve Lee, general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, said churches are generally within rights to take positions on issues, so long as political functions remained a relatively small part of their activities.

"Under existing tax law, I don't see any problem with the churches expressing their views on this matter," Lee said of 401.

Councilman Wayne Ecton said he would welcome another organization to serve as a counterweight to the Coalition of Pinnacle Peak, a neighborhood group that has successfully lobbied to curb development and preserve desert views.

Bob Vairo, president of the Coalition of Pinnacle Peak, said that zoning issues also were the genesis of his group.

"It's not surprising they feel somehow being organized would give them more influence or clout with the city," he said.

Vairo said the churches have a right to have a place at the table of civic politics, but he advised them to keep their emotions in check.

"If you want to be respected as a civic group, approach things intelligently, do research and know what you're talking about. Keeping things focused and objective is very hard to do."

Complain about this violation of Church & State to:

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted, Catholic Diocese of Phoenix Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño United Methodist Church