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Bullied pulpits

"Bullied pulpits" Continued...

Issue: "The Da Vinci craze," May 20, 2006

Such a challenge to the federally imposed religious protection is unlikely to make much headway in court. RLUIPA was forged over nine congressional hearings and three years as a constitutionally sound replacement for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, an overreaching bill that violated individual states' rights. RLUIPA has proved invaluable in allowing the megachurch revolution. "It fortifies the wall of protection of religious exercise," said Mr. Leland. "The First Amendment can certainly stand on its own, but RLUIPA sharpens the teeth of the argument and gives it a bigger bite."

Land-use protection is central to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom to exercise religion. (Few churches could operate successfully on a boat or in a plane.) But local governments are increasingly opposed to large congregations filling prime sections of real estate-not because of anti-religious fervor so much as for financial considerations. "Municipalities would rather use that space for commercial retail or economic development," Mr. Leland explained. "When you get these 6,000- or 10,000-people congregations that are taking up substantial space, the municipalities are looking at the bucks and thinking, 'Boy, that's a mall, or a Costco, or a Sears, or a Home Depot that's going to generate tremendous tax revenue."

Christ Church in Montclair, N.J., has encountered such opposition in its attempted 20-mile move west to Rockaway Township. The 5,000-person congregation purchased a 107-acre campus from a departing technology company with the intention of renovating the facility for Sunday services and midweek programming. Critics worry about the loss of property taxes and influx of traffic. Rockaway mayor Louis Sceusi has questioned how the township would benefit from allowing such a move.

But Christ Church spokesman Marc Weinstein told WORLD that the church's exhaustive efforts to accommodate local concerns have met an uncompromising brick wall of prejudice: "There are certain individuals in the township that do not want the church at any cost. You can't keep a church out of a community just because you don't like the church."

After two years of failed attempts at a neighborly resolution, Christ Church filed a lawsuit last August to protect its interests in the $14 million property. The U.S. Department of Justice has also launched an investigation into whether Rockaway Township violated RLUIPA by changing a zoning ordinance specifically to exclude Christ Church. The church is hopeful such pressure might yield a favorable resolution by midsummer. "There is no condition for the township to reject the church's application solely based on its size," Mr. Weinstein said.

Questions loom as to how effective an evangelical church can be after enduring a highly publicized spat with its neighbors. But Mr. Leland believes continued success in such lawsuits and public debates will help reduce future discrimination, allowing megachurches to continue their unprecedented takeover as the nation's dominant form of religious assembly: "What communities and local governments are beginning to realize is that there are groups here to fight for religious institutions."

Christians in megachurches without land-use battles can play a role as well, showering communities with service to help alter negative perceptions. "America has changed its attitude towards religion," said Mr. Tedesco. "Where religion and churches used to be viewed as a great thing for the community-a place for congregations to worship together, play together, and serve together-now, they're seen as a nuisance, especially large churches." Lawsuits won't change that.

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