OPINION — H.R. “Winkie” Wardlaw and plaintiffs were awarded $106,063.70 in attorneys fees in their failed effort to sue a San Angelo church, a local gymnastics business, and the City of San Angelo over a zoning dispute. The majority of the award, $96,023.70, will be paid by the taxpayers in the city.
The award for attorneys fees is perplexing because the lawsuit was rendered moot by actions taken subsequently by the City and defendants to re-issue a special use exception to the defendant, Lifepoint Baptist Church, that enabled the church to continue to use its large gymnasium property by leasing it to gymnastics company, Texas Tumbleweeds. What is more, the defendants argued the lessor, Tumbleweeds, was providing a faith-based gymnastics program aimed at San Angelo’s youth, a right protected by the First Amendment. The new application and subsequent new zoning exception seemed agreeable to all parties, even Wardlaw himself.
The case demonstrated the tension between church and state, where the church chose an entrepreneurial strategy to maximize the use of its gym to perform its outreach, pitted against power brokers who had money to exert the power of the courts to quash it. According to the church in various hearings, leasing the gym and providing spiritual oversight of the sports programs inside the gym, was a part of its ministry. In addition to the Constitution, both federal and state statutes protected the church in accomplishing this endeavor.
However, having a commercial lease on the edge of the historical and affluent Santa Rita neighborhood angered resident and attorney Winkie Wardlaw to the point that he assembled a group of plaintiffs — the Good ‘Ol Boys — and sued to prevent the Tumbleweed’s operation. Claiming residency in the neighborhood for over 70 years, Wardlaw said his lifelong raison d’être was defense of the neighborhood from, among many things, commercial encroachment, Christians or not.
Yet, across the street from the gym is situated one of the more popular restaurants in the city, especially with the Santa Rita residents, on the first floor of a residential high-rise condominium complex called The RiverView. It too has a special use permit to operate a commercial enterprise in the residential neighborhood. In fact, during the hearings at the planning commission, we learned that Santa Rita had 55 special use exceptions on properties located throughout the Santa Rita neighborhood. Not a peep about those encroachments from the Defender of Santa Rita were made over these many decades… until it involved a church.
The good news for those who believe churches play a vital role in the San Angelo community is that the plaintiffs effectively lost the lawsuit if their intention was to shut down the commercial use of the church’s gym. The bad news is the court saw fit to punish the taxpayers and the church for winning the argument and properly defending the First Amendment.
Visiting Judge Lee Hamilton heard the case and made the ruling to punish the City of San Angelo’s taxpayers for allowing a faith-based gymnastics program to operate in a 50-year-old gym that otherwise would have become a vacant, decaying eyesore on the edge of Mr. Wardlaw’s storied Santa Rita. Hamilton, who is from Abilene, was not elected by the citizens here and cannot be held accountable.
Wardlaw claimed his work was pro bono. However, his attorney friends got paid $325 an hour to bang up the church and taxpayers in court.
With all of this vitriol thrown at the church because of its gym, one has to ask, who is eying the property for something else?
Such as it is with the Good ‘Ol Boys of Santa Rita.
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