Culture

Laws of the land

Culture | RELIGION: Churches nationwide are going to court over property regulations

Issue: "George W. Bush: Gut check," April 24, 2004

REV. DEREK ANUNCIATION is a patient man. Or an extremely determined one. Every Sunday for more than two years, the pastor of Praise Christian Center in Huntington Beach, Calif., has conducted worship services outdoors on a dirt industrial lot. When it rains, he erects a canopy, and worshippers trudge in through the muck. Those who can, that is.

Once a congregation of 75, Praise Christian Center has dwindled to just 12, as many members-including one lady who couldn't pull her oxygen tank through the dirt-left the church. The problem is an ongoing dispute with city hall over the converted warehouse where Rev. Anunciation's church used to meet. Citing fire safety codes, Huntington Beach officials in 2001 kicked the church out of the warehouse. In October 2003, Rev. Anunciation filed suit, claiming religious discrimination by the city.

The lawsuit is one of scores across the country in which individual churches, backed by legal groups like the Alliance Defense Fund and Pacific Justice Institute, have hauled governments into court. Issues run the religious-freedom gamut, from free exercise to privacy to an evolving church-state front called "religious land use."

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That issue has ignited legal battles in at least 26 states where religious groups, mostly Christian churches, are squaring off against cities and counties over the right to build or expand worship facilities. Their legal sword: a 2000 federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The measure prohibits governments from implementing onerous land-use regulations (or rules in institutions such as prisons) that impose "a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution."

But some local governments apparently didn't get the memo. At least 46 religious land-use cases are now pending across the country, according to the Becket Fund, a religious-liberty group.

In Huntington Beach, for example, city officials want Praise Christian Center to fork over more than $500,000 in property upgrades to spruce the place up for its small congregation. Meanwhile, 81 people in the landscape trade already occupy the warehouse in question.

Alliance Defense Fund attorney Robert Tyler said the city's attempt to change the rules for the church violates RLUIPA. "It's unacceptable. The city is intentionally burdening and discouraging religious speech, and that is wrong."

Neutrality also seems in short supply in Seattle, where Northview Community Church has filed suit in a different kind of religious discrimination case, this one involving cash and privacy. According to Northview's complaint, the Everett School District has over the past four years overcharged the church $30,000 for the use of public-school facilities. The district had initially charged all religious groups higher fees than secular groups. It later changed that policy, but required the church to hand over its membership lists as a condition of access. A federal judge ruled in January that there is enough evidence of discrimination for the case to move forward.

A church-state case in Minnesota also rolled forward last month. Edina Community Lutheran Church (ECLC) filed suit late last spring, a week before the Minnesota Citizens Personal Protection Act, a liberalized concealed weapons law, took effect in the state. The new statute requires Minnesota county sheriffs to issue concealed weapons permits to all applicants 21 or older who meet certain standards, including passing criminal and mental-health background checks. Previously, law-enforcement officials had broad discretion to approve or deny such permits.

The law already allows churches to ban guns from their buildings, but not from their parking lots or daycare facilities. ECLC argued that requiring church leaders to open any portion of a church's property to firearms violated their religious free-exercise rights. On March 16, Judge Marilyn Brown Rosenbaum agreed, and allowed churches to prohibit guns on all church property via an injunction that will remain in effect until the case goes to trial.

Judge Rosenbaum ruled that all of a church's property is entwined with its religious missions. By mandating that churches "tolerate" on that property actions that conflict with their religious beliefs, the state infringed upon their right to free exercise of religion, she wrote: "The interest of the state to protect public safety can be achieved through less restrictive measures."

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