Churches thankful for court win over Texas town

The small Texas town of Magnolia sits about 45 miles northwest of Houston. Though it bills itself as a “community of unity,” three Magnolia churches are raising their voices in protest of what they claim is discrimination against them by the town of about 2,200 residents.

The three churches filed a lawsuit against Magnolia, challenging the town’s decision to charge them more for water than businesses are charged. The churches were recently handed a significant legal victory by a Texas appeals court, however.

In the beginning . . .

The dispute began in March 2018, when the Montgomery County town altered its water rates to charge tax-exempt and nonprofit organizations more than commercial businesses are charged.

According to a news report, the two sides have had a series of court encounters, beginning in the 419th Judicial District Court in Travis County, where the churches argued that the rate hikes were invalid because they hadn’t been directly served notice of the new rate system, while Magnolia argued that it had served proper notice when it published notices in Houston and Austin newspapers.

The town won that round, but the churches filed for a new trial, arguing that Magnolia’s newspaper notices were insufficient and had left them out of the loop and unable to challenge the new rate system. In August of last year, the district court agreed and ordered Magnolia to inform affected parties directly, and granted the houses of worship a new trial.

Appeals court decision

The Texas Third District Court of Appeals recently upheld the decision in favor of the churches.

The churches had argued that they were denied due process because the Expedited Declaratory Judgment Act (EDJA) allowed Magnolia to slip its rate hike notices into newspapers rather than submitting notices directly to them.

Magnolia argued that notices were properly made under the EDJA and that the churches had then missed deadlines for challenging the rate hikes.

In addition, Magnolia argued that the new rate system results in only slight hikes to the churches’ water bills.

After the legal victory, Texas Pastor Council President David Welch said “the simple request we had to the city was to charge churches, schools and nonprofits the same that they do everybody else.”