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Federal law gives congregations earthly clout in local zoning disputes

Posted: Friday, November 03, 2000

PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Municipal officials may fume, but church and synagogue members are singing the praises of a new federal law that gives them earthly clout in zoning disputes.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, recently signed by President Clinton, gives religious groups leverage when they need local government approval to start programs or to erect, expand, renovate or demolish buildings.

The measure requires governments to have a ''compelling'' interest, such as public safety or order, to enforce land-use regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious activities. Even then, a government agency must find the ''least restrictive'' way to satisfy the public interest.

Liz Galewski, spokeswoman for the National Organization of Counties, said religious groups shouldn't be held to a different standard than secular institutions are.

But attorney Melissa Rogers of the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, D.C., counters that past land-use enforcement patterns revealed widespread bias against religious institutions, especially those of ethnic minorities.

The measure has already prompted Willingboro, N.J., a Philadelphia suburb, to back off earlier refusal to let the Hispanic Assembly of God build in a business zone.

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