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Jewish World Review Feb. 24, 2000 /18 Adar I, 5760

Michelle Malkin

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Zoning out religious freedom

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- WHERE HAVE ALL the churches gone? From Oregon to Florida, houses of worship are getting zoned out of their neighborhoods by government regulators who put high-priced sod above G-d.

The Sunnyside Centenary United Methodist Church in southeast Portland, Ore., is exactly the kind of place that presidential candidates in both parties have in mind when they call for more "faith-based alternatives" to tax-financed social services. Since the turn of the last century, the gable-roofed church has nourished the souls of rich and poor alike. The church not only provides worship and Bible study services, but also runs a child care center, night and day shelters, and a twice-weekly meals program for low-income families and the homeless.

Sunnyside Centenary plays a critical role in providing an independent safety net for Portland's neediest citizens. Yet, it is the latest target of an anti-growth jihad supported by the likes of Vice President Al Gore, the Sierra Club, and the nation's urban planning czars. Yuppie neighbors complained about noise, crowding, and negative impact of the church's activities on their property values. In response, Portland's city zoning officer ruled last month that the church's meals program should be shut down.

No one argues that churches should be exempt from standard fire, public safety, traffic, and building use codes. And if some of the Sunnyside church's beneficiaries engage in criminal behavior, they should be dealt with appropriately by law enforcement. But local governments, in the name of "livability," are increasingly using zoning rules to curtail many venerable churches' First Amendment rights to assemble and freely exercise their religious mission of ministering to the disadvantaged.

Tossed into the Portland zoning decision against the Sunnyside church was an order limiting the 400-seat church's attendance at other events, including Sunday worship, to no more than 70 people. The zoning officer gave no rationale for the attendance limit; neighbors had not even asked for such a ruling. When questioned about the order, the Portland zoning officer adamantly refused to elaborate because, she said, the "quasi-judicial" nature of her office relieved her of any responsibility to explain.

Religious leaders of all denominations in the Pacific Northwest were justifiably outraged; the church has ponied up a $1,746 fee to the city for an appeal of the case scheduled in two weeks. Legal scholars say the city's restrictions are unprecedented, but the imperious action comes as no surprise to religious liberty watchdogs who track similar anti-church zoning cases across the country.

"I think this incident highlights the risks faced by all religions" who engage in ministerial activities, Nicholas Miller of the Maryland-based Council on Religious Freedom told me this week. "There is no general federal protection of religious liberty anymore."

This is a result, Miller explains, of a radical 1990 Supreme Court ruling which determined that generally applicable laws such as zoning regulations must be obeyed even if they infringe on religious practice. Until that ruling, the high court had almost always sided with religious plaintiffs seeking First Amendment protection of their free exercise rights. Since the decision, land-use regulators have been emboldened in their efforts to curtail fundamental worship activities and social services including weddings, funerals, private home worship, and soup kitchens.

In Washington, D.C., the Western Presbyterian Church got in trouble with local zoning authorities who deemed the pastor's feeding programs for the poor "not consistent" with the operation of a church. In Los Angeles, Congregation Etz Chaim– a home-based synagogue which served many elderly and disabled members -- was closed down under a zoning law that leading city officials refused to apply equally to close down a gay sex club in a residential area.

And in St. Petersburg, an inner-city ministry called The Refuge Church is now homeless after losing its status as a church because it engaged in what city regulators and neighbors considered too many troublesome social services.

Those who embrace the sanctimonious agenda of "smart development" and "managed growth" consider themselves on the side of the angels. But there is nothing wise, compassionate, or holy about sacrificing people of faith at the altar of NIMBYism.


JWR contributor Michelle Malkin can be reached by clicking here.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate