Court battle brewing over religious zoning law

Posted: Friday, April 20, 2001

ABINGTON, Pa. (AP) -- In a quiet cul-de-sac, set among million-dollar homes in the suburbs north of Philadelphia, a driveway leads to a tranquil estate with two stone houses and a chapel.

The land has been home to a wealthy executive's family, Roman Catholic nuns-in-training and a pair of Greek Orthodox monks.

But when a small congregation of Reform Jews struck a deal to buy it and applied for permission to turn it into a synagogue and Hebrew school, Abington Township officials refused.

''It was fine for the Catholic nuns, it was fine for the Orthodox monks. It ought to be fine for the Jewish minyan,'' said Anthony Picarello, a lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C., law firm helping the congregation sue.

Congregation Kol Ami's federal lawsuit, filed Wednesday, is one of a handful across the country that could test the constitutionality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

The law was designed to prevent religious discrimination in local zoning by requiring municipalities to show a compelling interest, such as public safety, before denying a religious group's zoning request.

Kol Ami needed a variance for nontraditional use of property in the residential district. The Abington Township zoning board cited neighbors' concerns, mostly about traffic, in denying it.

''The prior use of the property is very, very different from what is being proposed,'' said Marc D. Jonas, an attorney hired by neighbors to fight the congregation's petition. ''They are entering and exiting onto a cul-de-sac, for God's sake.''

But David Sloviter, a past president of Kol Ami, said traffic studies show a synagogue and twice-a-week Hebrew school would yield less traffic than 11, 1-acre home sites, which the property could hold.

Some members of his 200-family congregation wonder why zoning exceptions were made for the nuns and the monks, but not for them, he said.

''I have resisted, personally, and others have all along, blaming this on any kind of anti-Semitism,'' Sloviter said. ''I'm trying to take the opponents as sincere, perhaps a little self-absorbed, but nothing sinister.''

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned a broader version of the law in 1997, saying Congress had exceeded its powers over states and federal courts.

The 2000 law is specific to local zoning rules; it effectively shifts the burden of proof from an applicant to the local government when religious use is involved.

Critics say that gives religious groups -- and their affiliated schools, day care centers and other operations -- an unfair advantage.

''A religious institution should be subject to the same standards as any other applicant ... seeking land use approval,'' said Robert Weiner, a Wilmington, Del., lawyer who heads the land-use section of the National Association of Counties.

Only one of the 10 known cases filed under the law so far has been resolved.

In December, the city of Grand Haven, Mich., agreed, through a federal consent decree, to let the Haven Shores Community Church use a commercially zoned storefront. Lawyers for local governments have argued they want to reserve commercial districts for tax-producing occupants.

The Becket Fund filed another storefront church case April 12 against the Atlanta suburb of Forest Park.

In Los Angeles, a small Orthodox Jewish congregation is suing over the denial of its request to hold services in a residential neighborhood.

Sloviter said Kol Ami has already spent $155,000 fighting the zoning issue. He said his group, which has been meeting at a college, won't find a comparable property in the area for the $1 million the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth is willing to accept.

''It is their wish that this remain in religious use -- as they say, 'Doing God's work,''' he said.

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On the Net:

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, http://becketfund.org

Becket Fund's RLUIPA information, http://www.rluipa.org

National Association of Counties, http://www.naco.org



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