Religious groups are suing local governments across the country for denying permits to build religious buildings. Part of the reason is that many churches are building bigger buildings that take up acres of land. And many of the disputes are between rural neighborhoods, and so-called mega-churches, with buildings over 50 thousand square feet. A federal law limits the power of local governments to say “no” to buildings designed for religious use. The GLRC’s Linda Stephan reports:
Religious groups are suing local governments across the country for denying permits to
build religious buildings. Part of the reason is that many churches are building bigger
buildings that take up acres of land. And many of the disputes are between rural
neighborhoods, and so-called mega-churches, with buildings over 50 thousand square feet.
A federal law limits the power of local governments to say “no” to buildings designed for
religious use. The GLRC’s Linda Stephan reports:
Bay Pointe Community Church prides itself on a contemporary worship style.
(Sound of singing, “Show your power, oh Lord our God, oh Lord our God”)
Members believe it’s their job to reach out to the world, and to the local community.
(Sound of singing, “to Asia and Austrailia, to South America and to the United States.
And to Michigan and Traverse City”)
But some people in the community think the church would be a bad neighbor. Right now,
the church in northern Michigan meets in a high school auditorium. But members have big plans for a
building of their own. It’ll be 58-thousand square-feet. That’s plenty of room for
Sunday school classes, a gym/auditorium, and even space enough to rent out to a
charter school on weekdays.
A year ago local township officials shot down those plans. They said the building’s
“too big,” that it would clash with the area, and that it would cause too much traffic.
Then the church sued, claiming religious discrimination.
The church has some unhappy neighbors in the rural area where it plans to build.
At a public hearing, resident Brian Vos told local officials NOT to back down,
regardless of the lawsuit.
“This isn’t about a church, this is about future development. Heck, Wal-Mart
could come in on East Long Lake. And if they had church on Sunday, you’d have to approve it.”
But, rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending itself in federal
court, the township settled out-of-court. It agreed to let the church build its building,
and even to let it expand to more than 100 thousand square feet within a few years.
Many residents are NOT happy with the deal and they’ve threatened to recall
the entire township board.
There are similar cases across the country. A recent federal law limits the ability of
zoning boards to say “no” to churches and other religious groups who want to build,
or to expand. Jared Leland represents the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The group is bankrolling lawsuits on behalf of churches across the nation. Leland says
the law was created because zoning boards have used bogus arguments to deny permits
to religious groups they don’t like:
“For instance, a Buddhist meditation center was being restricted from existing in a
particular district because they would generate too much ‘noise.’ They
were silent meditation Buddhists. There would absolutely be no noise coming from such.”
Leland says because of the law, today, a municipality needs a
“compelling government interest” to deny a religious building project.
That’s a serious issue that has to do with health, safety, or security.
He says municipalities are usually worried about how a building will look,
or about parking. And he says that’s not enough:
“For instance, if they say, well, something this large is gonna generate too
much traffic, it’s gonna cause parking concerns in the residential district,
those are not compelling government interests.”
But some say putting a mega-church in an area where the community
wants to preserve farmland or keep sprawl away from greenspace should be enough.
“The question is: What is valuable to Americans?”
Marci Hamilton is an expert on church-state law at Cardozo Law School in New York City.
She argues that residential neighborhoods should have some say about what’s being built
next door, through their local government.
Hamilton says the law that Congress passed, RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, is an unprecedented Congressional power grab
from local governments. She says people expect local officials to protect their
neighborhoods from problems like traffic, and noise.
Hamilton says since just the threat of a federal court case is often
enough to force a settlement, there’s an incentive for churches to sue
local governments. Even where the case has no merit under RLUIPA:
“What we’re seeing is almost anything appearing on the mega-church campuses.
We have one in Texas that has a McDonald’s on campus. We have a mega-church in
Pennsylvania that has an automobile repair. I think it’s hard to argue that
those largely commercial activities appropriately fall under RLUIPA.”
Hamilton says she believes the Supreme Court will eventually rule
that the law violates state’s rights. But the High Court has yet to hear a
land use case under this law.
For the GLRC, I’m Linda Stephan.