DENVER — A sculpture outside a unique Denver church is causing controversy.
"The name of the sculpture is "Defender," and it was given to us by the artist as a symbol to defend our religious liberty at the church," said Steve Berke, founder of the International Church of Cannabis.
Ironically, Berke is now having to defend the sculpture itself.
"The city claims it's an encroachment. And if that's the case, fine, give us proper time to get the permit. But if it's an encroachment for us, there are at least 45 other encroachments in Wash Park, neighbors who have things on their front lawns as well. So let's be fair," he said.
This is not your typical church. The International Church of Cannabis opened its doors in 2017 and uses cannabis as a sacrament.
Berke says their religion is Elevationism, which focuses on elevating one's self to their best version.
"You can be an Elevationist Jew, an Elevationist Christian, an Elevationist Buddhist. You can be an Elevationist Atheist as long as you believe in elevating yourself to a better version of self," he said.
Berke tells Denver7 he feels the city has targeted the church ever since it opened.
"The only explanation I have, is it some sort of form of religious discrimination?" said Berke. "We've turned an eyesore in the community to arguably the most impressive art church in the world. People come here from all over the world to see our BEYOND Laser Light Show."
Berke said the city sent him a letter a few days ago, saying the sculpture violated city codes because it was unsafe and needed a permit.
"The city said if we don't remove it by February 17, they will come with their bulldozers and remove it for us," he said. "I've tried to get in contact with the woman who sent us the letter. I have been unsuccessful for a few days now. I'm trying to get some sort of clarity on how I can get a permit for this."
In a statement, the City of Denver's Department of Transportation & Infrastructure (DOTI) said the statue was flagged by an inspector as a potential safety concern, and that the church will be receiving an email with further instructions.
"The notice was, in fact, mailed to the church and no in-person conversations have occurred. The idea of us bulldozing in two weeks is ridiculous and would not align with any established practices.
The instruction the church received was to reach out to our permitting team within two weeks - not to “get” the permit in two weeks.
The church has since reached out to that team and will be receiving an email from them today with further instructions, and they’ll take a closer look at the request for a permit and make a determination.
The statue placed in the right of way was flagged by an inspector as a potential safety concern due to its location and height, potentially blocking driver sight lines."
Berke is asking for more communication, saying he has not been able to reach anyone.
"I've tried to get the city on the phone to just talk with them and see how we can be in compliance, and I have been unsuccessful so far. Tell me how I can be compliant. Give me time to be compliant," he said.
He's also asking for his church to be treated more fairly in the neighborhood.
"We bring thousands of tourists every single week to the neighborhood to spend dollars and stimulate this economy," said Berke. "This is gonna be my legacy. And I want to leave this church, long after I pass away, to multiple generations of people that can come and experience the art, the beauty, the principles of Elevationism, the BEYOND Laser Light Show. I hope this place exists for 100 years," Berke said.
Berke said an inspector was at the church when the sculpture was first put up about four months ago.
The city says they were not contacted before the sculpture was installed and claim it was flagged following calls into 311.
"If they come with their bulldozers on February 17th, our church members will stage a sit in, and they will have to run us over before they destroy that effigy and sculpture," said Berke.