Removing zoning obstacles to houses of worship

Posted: Friday, August 11, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A coalition of more than 80 religious and legal advocacy groups, from liberal to conservative, support legislation that would make it harder to use zoning rules to prevent building houses of worship.

Zoning regulations cannot ''place a substantial burden on exercise of religion'' unless local officials show a compelling governmental objective, according to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which was passed by both houses of Congress on July 27. It is expected to be signed into law by President Clinton.

The bill also seeks to ensure that people in institutions like mental hospitals and prisons can practice their faith freely.

Supporters include the American Jewish Congress, the Christian Legal Society, the Baptist Joint Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Family Research Council and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Zoning conflicts involving houses of worship have become contentious across the nation in the past decade.

Muslim leaders in Culver City, Calif., for example, ran into complaints about everything from the possibility of traffic congestion to sun glare off the marble when they tried to build a mosque.

They eventually built it and opened the doors last year -- but not before making many concessions.

''As religious communities, we do encounter situations, not imposed by cities themselves but by people who reside in the area. They have certain prejudices and they bring these issues up to give the city a headache,'' said Usman Madha, community liaison for the mosque.

The law ''will give leverage to religious groups which we never had before,'' he said.

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