Code Enforcement vs. Religion

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When do a person's religious and cultural beliefs take priority over a city ordinance? That's the question at the heart of a controversy between a Colorado Springs woman, her neighbors and the city.

Marcia Forton says the landscaping in her yard is used for religious and cultural ceremonies. She is part Native American, and she considers the grasses and plants sacred. "Every morning I have a ceremony and it's just to welcome the day to thank God for having a new day and so you burn the grass as an offering."

But neighbors complained to the city about Forton's yard, and code enforcement says the issue is cut and dried. "Weeds are weeds that's how it's written in the code. Nine inches or taller constitutes a fire hazard within 55 feet of a house," says Code Enforcement Officer Pat Wilson.

So on Tuesday, code enforcement officers supervised the cutting of all of Forton’s plants that were too close and too high. This was her reaction: “They are taking my life from me."

Vice Mayor Richard Skorman has even been involved in the dispute between Forton and her neighbors. “It's probably about 50-50. Some of them feel it's inappropriate to do this and others support her."

Skorman says he wishes code enforcement had waited until alternatives, including a possible religious exemption, had been explored. He is now looking for a compromise that will allow Forton to celebrate her religion. "She practices Native American religion and she uses the grasses for her ceremonies and she's very sincere about it. It's what she believes in," says Skorman.

Code enforcement says the codes in question have been on the books for well over 20 years.