District Judge Peter Rapkoch said Wednesday he is denying the state's request for a court order blocking a Montana-based religious sect from further development of its property.
His announcement prompted state health officials and representatives of the Church Universal and Triumphant to suspend efforts to settle a lawsuit filed by the state against the church over a fuel spill on its Park County land last spring."It was time to get this thing resolved one way or the other," Rapkoch said in a telephone interview from his Lewistown office this morning.
He said his order will reject the state Health Department's request for an injunction prohibiting development that may affect the environment until the state can complete an environmental review of the sect's construction of underground bomb shelters.
Rapkoch said the order will be issued today, but an explanation supporting the decision will not be finished for a few days.
He said his decision still allows the state to pursue administrative action against the church to bar development on its land. The judge also indicated his order had nothing to do with state and church attempts Monday to settle the suit.
"I don't really direct my thinking to what the parties are talking about among themselves," Rapkoch said.
Future court proceedings are still possible in the case, he added.
Dennis Iverson, deputy Health Department director, said this morning he was not sure of the ramifications from Rapkoch's decision. "I don't know if we win or lose on that" until the order is issued, he said.
Denial of the injunction still leaves a host of questions unanswered, such as what is prohibited activity by the church, the state's right to inspect church developments, who will pay legal costs and whether information on church activities gathered by the court will be made public.
Rapkoch said he was unsure of the status of that evidence.
The suit was prompted by a fuel spill in April and, when talks between the two sides began Monday, a hearing in the case scheduled to start that day in Livingston was postponed by Rapkoch.
"My understanding is that ... the (Church Universal and Triumphant) approached the state and said they were willing to stipulate everything that the state was seeking, so there would be no need for a hearing," said Victor Bjornberg, Gov. Stan Stephens' press secretary.
The long-awaited hearing involves a lawsuit filed by the state Health Department last spring, after 31,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel leaked from fuel tanks buried at the church's 750-person underground fallout-shelter complex just north of Yellowstone National Park.
The New Age religious sect had warned its followers to build underground shelters in preparation for a possible nuclear war or accident, or other global catastrophe.
In addition to an injunction, the suit also seeks a $50,000 fine and alleged fraudulent behavior on the part of church officials, as well as violation of the state's subdivision review law.
State officials, who in 1989 completed an extensive environmental review of church development, have said the church deliberately concealed its plans for the 750-person shelter, which was within the area covered by the review.
Lawyers from the state have taken sworn depositions from many church members and employees and said at a hearing last week that they had information on this alleged deception. They said they also sought a wide range of information about bomb shelters, weapons, land-sales practices and other activities in the church-owned subdivision of Glastonbury, about 30 miles south of Livingston.
"I will be bitterly unhappy if some aspect of that deal closes those papers," church critic Richard Parks said of the depositions. "The state knows how we'll feel about that, I'm sure.