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Posted 24 Feb 2001   For week ended September 24, 2000
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Sent on Mormon-News: 21Sep00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Use of Zoning Laws May Hide Bias Against Religion

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS -- Today's Christian Science Monitor uses the dispute over the Boston Temple to launch an in-depth examination of the zoning difficulties faced by many churches as they try to build new houses of worship. Recent legislation passed by both houses of the US Congress tries to address this issue, requiring local governments and planning boards to show compelling reason for zoning restrictions on religions.

The Boston Temple, which will be 'toured' and discussed on Boston public radio station WBUR at noon today [See to listen live], will open October 1st without a steeple because of challenges by the building's neighbors, who won a court decision against the steeple, which was permitted by the local zoning authorities. The LDS Church has appealed the decision and expects to eventually add the steeple to the building. The neighbors also claim that the law under which the town of Belmont permitted the Temple to be built is unconstitutional, and they are challenging the law before the US Supreme Court, asking that the Temple be torn down.

The LDS Church and other minority religions have faced similar problems elsewhere. An orthodox Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, for example, hasn't been permitted to meet in a home, in spite of the fact that the neighborhood already contains "schools, recreational facilities, embassies, and a law school," and is on a street that carries 84,000.

An Islamic group in Frederick, Maryland is also mentioned in the Christian Science Monitor article. The group was denied access to water and sewer lines on property it had purchased when the same land had been granted water and sewer access as a baseball complex. A United Methodist Church in Richmond, Virginia was told how many people it could feed in a homeless program and local zoning officials tried to tell the church how many worshipers it could have.

But local governments and planning officials claim that there hasn't been widespread discrimination against churches, and say that the new law will be a burden to local governments. "We don't see it as a protection of religious freedom, but a preferential establishment of an exemption from general community standards," says Randy Arndt, spokesman for the National League of Cities.

In some cases local standards may be worth keeping. Leaders of the National Historic Trust worry that churches may use the law to allow them to destroy older church buildings that should be preserved as national landmarks. They cite a recent case in San Antonio in which the Archbishop of San Antonio tried to demolish all but the facade of a local church built in 1923. The Archbishop eventually compromised with local authorities, preserving 80 percent of the building.

But churches counter that a clear trend against religions exists, especially when those religions are small. A 1997 study by BYU and by the law firm Mayer, Brown &Platt showed that minority religions representing just nine percent of the US population were involved in 49 percent of litigation involving zoning. "Small faiths are forced to litigate far more often.... The land-use authorities are less sympathetic to their needs and react less favorably to their claims," says University of Texas law professor Douglas Laycock. Mark Ster, attorney for the American Jewish Congress agrees, "You'd be amazed at how many cases involve Orthodox Jewish synagogues and small evangelical churches."

Stern goes on to accuse some jurisdictions of hidden discrimination against religions. He says Jewish congregations are sometimes told, "we don't want to look like Brooklyn." and says, "I've had zoning officials tell me, 'We know under state law we can't keep out this house of worship, but we're going to do it because it's politically popular. You can take it to the courts - that's fine with us.' "

With the size of the larger Temples that the LDS Church constructs, they are often targets of zoning problems. Just such a problem led to the Church to abandon a plan to build a larger temple in Forest Hills, Tennessee when local zoning authorities rejected the zoning application because of the "suburban estates character of the area." But the proposed Temple was located next to other churches, and its design was modified so that it was compatible in size to the other churches. The local zoning officials still did not permit the building.

Some observers hope that the new federal law will reduce the number of lawsuits over zoning involving churches. "The statute is going to give us increased leverage with zoning authorities," says the American Jewish Congress' Stern, "and I hope that will lead to greater negotiation between zoning boards and churches."


Uneasy neighbors
Christian Science Monitor 21Sep00 T1
By Jane Lampman: Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Religious groups find cities less hospitable on zoning matters.


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