SAN ANGELO, TX — Now that the City of San Angelo has reaffirmed it will allow Lifepoint Baptist Church and Texas Tumbleweeds Gymnastics to carry on with the commercial use of LBC’s gym, the battle between the church and a few Santa Rita neighborhood landowners has moved back into the district courtroom.
LBC applied at the City for, and received, a special use permit, or exception, to use its gymnasium for commercial purposes even though the gym is located on property that is zoned as residential. Some Santa Rita residents objected, fearing that allowing commercial use of the gym could become an initial domino to fall fostering an encroachment of commercial businesses into their historic neighborhood. The attorneys for the church said LBC was wanting to maximize the use of the gym facilities by leasing it to Texas Tumbleweeds that runs faith-based gymnastics programs for San Angelo youth. The Santa Rita group filed a lawsuit to prevent the church from using the gym for a commercial enterprise, claiming the special use permit was illegal.
The two-year-long legal battle, spurred with the lawsuit titled H.R. Wardlaw III, Beverly Stribling, and Lawrence A. Ricci, Elisa A. Herrington, June T. Doggett, and William Caskey, Plaintiffs v. City of San Angelo, Texas; Lifepoint Baptist Church of San Angelo, Texas; and Texas Tumbleweeds Gymnastics, LLC. Defendants, matches a few powerful and wealthy Santa Rita homeowners — the good ‘ol boys — against the congregation of an entrepreneurial church that claims it is revitalizing its mission.
On June 15, visiting Judge Lee Hamilton ruled that the Santa Rita plaintiffs’ case is moot. The original lawsuit claimed the 2019 special use permit caused the harm. However, as of June 1, the San Angelo City Council unanimously approved a new permit that replaced the 2019 permit even though the new permit also allows commercial use of the gym. Since the 2019 permit is no longer in effect, the lawsuit has no jurisdictional standing with the court.
The Santa Rita group, however, now just wants to recover its attorneys fees. At the June 15 hearing, San Angelo attorney, and instigator of the lawsuit, H.R. “Winkie” Wardlaw stated that he was co-counsel with San Angelo attorney Hal T. Noelke. The two argued that the question of attorneys fees is not moot. In earlier filings, Wardlaw and the plaintiffs requested $100,000 in attorneys’ fees to be paid by the defendants.
Meanwhile, the attorney for defendants LBC and Texas Tumbleweeds, DFW attorney Dustin Gaines, believes his clients are entitled to attorneys’ fees instead. The City of San Angelo, represented by Austin attorney Amy Emerson also requests for the City “all other relief to which the City is justly entitled.”
The Santa Rita Group may argue that the new special use permit is more restrictive — the 2021 permit does not convey with the transfer of the property as the 2019 permit did — and that their ‘win’ was provided via City Council action before the court had its say. The new permit would not have happened had the Santa Rita group not filed the lawsuit. Therefore, the creation of the replacement permit in 2021 was a victory.
The church, on the other hand, can argue their side won. After all, their opposition, the Santa Rita group, had its claims ruled to be moot by the court. How can the losing party have a claim that the victors pay for their opponents’ attorneys? Also, the City claims their effort to engage in the process to issue a new special permit was to speed the civil action in front of the court by making it moot. In other words, the new permitting process was an action made in self defense.
More ominously for the Santa Rita group, the church has already argued that under Texas law, a party may assert the Texas Religious Freedom Act as a defense and seek recovery of attorneys’ fees and costs against any party that brings a claim that substantially burdens the party’s free exercise of religion. The LBC attorney Justin Gaines has argued leasing the gym to a business that is contracted to provide faith-based gymnastics instruction to youth is a form of religious expression.
Wardlaw and the plaintiffs have much to lose. Their case could result in not only being denied compensation for their legal fees, but instead the court can order Wardlaw et. al. pay the legal fees of the church and the City of San Angelo. When up against the Texas Religious Freedom Act, one can argue the Santa Rita group’s continued insistence on being awarded attorneys’ fees is a Hail Mary pass.
The late great University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal popularized the saying, “When you put the ball in the air, three things can happen to you and two of them are bad.” The hearing to decide whether the church along with the City or Wardlaw et. al. will pay the legal fees is set for August 4 at 1:15 p.m. It will be the Santa Rita group’s final stand.