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A Superior Court judge stopped Church of the Nazarene from evicting 61 children from their charter school in the Village of Oak Creek, at least for now.
By Greg Ruland
Larson Newspapers

A Superior Court judge stopped Church of the Nazarene from evicting 61 children from their charter school in the Village of Oak Creek, at least for now.

Desert Star Community School leases space in the church’s basement.

Eviction would cause “irreparable harm” to the school, its students and teachers, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Timothy J. Ryan ruled.

Church of the Nazarene sought to evict the school by Thursday, Dec. 21, according to court documents.

A lease between the church and Desert Star allows both parties to end their relationship on 30 days notice, Desert Star’s attorney, John Trebon, said.

On Oct. 25, the church notified Desert Star it had 30 days to leave but extended the period until Thursday, Dec. 21, Trebon said.

The 30-day notice may be ineffective if the eviction is motivated by illegal considerations, court documents state.

Ryan based his ruling in part on sworn statements alleging that Church of the Nazarene pastor Jeff Branaman told Desert Star representatives his church was involved in “spiritual warfare” against non-Christian belief systems.

Branaman allegedly objects that the school teaches students about Greek mythology — part of a state-required curriculum.

Branaman also reportedly objects to certain Desert Star festivals, including a recent event the pastor claimed featured a re-enactment of St. George slaying a dragon.

Branaman allegedly told a witness he found “false gods and idols” in the school’s classrooms.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office moved to stop the eviction on behalf of Desert Star, a state-approved charter school. The attorney general is authorized to represent all state agencies, including charter schools.

Ryan’s ruling came after the Attorney General’s Office argued it needed more time to investigate whether the church illegally discriminated against Desert Star.

The attorney general argued the church’s decision to evict was illegally based on religious considerations.

The Arizona Civil Rights Act allows churches to discriminate on the basis of religion under certain circumstances, but not when it offers accommodations to the general public, according to court documents.

By leasing church rooms and offices to Desert Star, Church of the Nazarene offered accommodations to the general public, the attorney general argued.

A church cannot discriminate on the basis of religion under those circumstances, according to the attorney general.

Arizona Assistant Attorney General Michelle Swann declined to comment on the case.

Church of the Nazarene’s attorney Jerry Steele did not return a telephone call requesting an interview.

Ryan’s ruling, issued Dec. 13, bars the church from evicting Desert Star until Ryan rules on whether the temporary restraining order should be made permanent.

Ryan will hear arguments on that issue Dec. 21 in Phoenix, according to Andrea Esquer, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office.

Desert Star wants to remain at its current location until the lease expires Thursday, June 7, 2007, or until an alternative site for the school can be located, Desert Star administrator Susan Simon said.

The school needs a suitable space of about 2,000 square feet, enough to house six classrooms, Simon said.

The school will probably close down if the eviction is allowed to go forward, Simon said.

No alternative site has been located despite diligent efforts to find one, she said.

Desert Star opened its doors in August touting a curriculum based on Waldorf methods, multiple-intelligence philosophy, environmental studies, multicultural education and other alternative approaches designed to “meet the needs of the whole child,” Simon said.

After investing $15,000 to renovate the church so that it could accommodate four classrooms, Desert Star recruited 10 teachers and 61 students for the 2006-07 school year.

The lease signed June 7, 2006, gives Desert Star exclusive rights to use the church’s basement, the land surrounding the church and the improvements on the land between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, court documents state.

Desert Star pays rent of $2,400 per month and is up to date with its payments, Simon said.


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