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 http://www.wbur.org/ 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
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
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."
Christian Science Monitor 21Sep00 T1
By Jane Lampman: Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Religious groups find cities less hospitable on zoning matters.