Lower levels of federal legal protection for religious activity mean that local churches are experiencing greater difficulties in dealing with local zoning authorities, says attorney Alan Reinach, public affairs and religious liberty director for the Adventist Church in California.
“Faith and civil rights groups from across the spectrum are becoming more concerned at the power of local authorities to levy excessive fees as a condition of building a church, to place land use restrictions on church property, or even to zone the church out of town,” says Reinach.
Reinach cites the recent case of the El Cajon Seventh-day Adventist Church, near San Diego, which is relocating from its downtown facility to a new suburban location. “El Cajon has a long history of ministry to the city’s homeless population,” says Reinach. “Its building plans were in readiness and approved, but they were challenged by a neighbor of their new suburban location, who expressed concern that the church would bring the homeless into their neighborhood.”
“We hoped that the city would see that the church was planning to take their ministry ‘to the streets’ and that a restriction on the land use permit was both unconstitutional and unnecessary,” says Reinach, “especially since the church planned to buy a van and to bring the food and clothing to the downtown area where the homeless are. Sadly, the city did not see it that way.”
Caring for the homeless is central to the Christian mission of an Adventist church, says Reinach, who will evaluate the possibility of a legal challenge to the restriction. “What happens now if a homeless person actually comes to worship at the church? Will the church violate the law if it invites that person to potluck? Offers some clothing? Invites them to return?”
A church’s ability to fight land zoning restrictions has been weakened by a series of Supreme Court decisions over the past decade that have reduced the legal protection afforded by the First Amendment “free exercise of religion” right, Reinach explains. “Government officials have gotten the message that they can trample on religious freedom with impunity,” says Reinach, “and, increasingly, they do just that-especially since their primary concern is to enhance their tax base and churches don’t contribute to the property tax revenue.”
A coalition of more than 70 civil rights groups made up of a diverse range of organizations, including the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Baptist Joint Committee, and the American Civil Liberties Union, is planning a push for federal legislation that would provide legal recourse against land zoning decisions that endanger the free exercise rights of religious organizations.