- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

A federal judge's order lifting a town's ban on family prayer meetings at home has plunged New Milford, Conn., officials into secret strategy sessions to find a way to restore the restrictions.
In a decision issued earlier this month, U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons wrote that the town's restrictions were illegal under a 2000 federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which forbids zoning or other restrictions that place a "substantial burden" on religion.
"People who previously attended the prayer group meetings were no longer participating because the town's actions made them afraid they would be arrested," Judge Fitzsimmons said in barring enforcement of the town's "cease-and-desist order" against the prayer meetings.
"The court finds that the allegation that people are afraid to attend a prayer group meeting because they fear being arrested is a substantial burden on the prayer group participants."
The decision has energized religious-interest groups seeking a replacement for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which the Supreme Court in 1997 declared unconstitutional in a 6-3 ruling that federal law may not prohibit local zoning restrictions that bar expansion of a church.
Town lawyer Steven Byrne said New Milford's order merely sought to cut traffic and eliminate parking jams outside the seven houses on the cul-de-sac where Robert and Mary Murphy have lived for 28 years, and where they have held weekly prayer meetings since he fell ill with cancer in 1994.
"I had a heart attack because of this whole thing," Mr. Murphy said yesterday, saying he was too sick to discuss the case in detail.
As many as 60 persons attended the two-hour sessions at 4:30 p.m. each Sunday, sometimes clogging the neighborhood of single-family homes with dozens of parked cars. The city also objected that some participants arrived early for charity work and stayed later for dinner.
Mr. Byrne did not return calls yesterday to discuss the case, but after a closed-door Zoning Commission meeting, he told the New Milford Spectrum the town will appeal the constitutionality of the federal law.
Judge Fitzsimmons said in her decision that such government actions were precisely what Congress intended to bar in the new law, which forbids zoning or other restrictions that place a "substantial burden" on religion.
"Forgoing or modifying the practice of one's religion because of governmental interference or fear of punishment by the government is precisely the type of 'substantial burden' Congress intended to trigger the RLUIPA's protections. Indeed, it is the concern which impelled adoption of the First Amendment," Judge Fitzsimmons said.
"This is a complete and total victory for our clients and the First Amendment," said the Murphys' attorney, Vincent McCarthy, who said he will seek to have Judge Fitzsimmons' temporary injunction made permanent.
"The court has clearly taken the appropriate action in this case to prevent the local government from censoring the religious expression of a family who only desires to use their private residence for prayer in a legal and lawful manner," said Mr. McCarthy, a New Milford lawyer associated with the American Center for Law and Justice.
"He testified that the prayer meetings brought him closer to God and changed his life after he became ill," Judge Fitzsimmons said of Mr. Murphy.
Her order noted that the city claimed it intended only to control traffic, not religious expression. Officials acknowledged the religious nature of the events and sincerity of those involved, which led directly to the finding that they could not ban them entirely, or restrict attendance.
"Here defendants are directly intruding into activities within plaintiffs' home when the reason given for the interference is activities that take place outside of plaintiffs' home; that is, the increased traffic levels on the street," Judge Fitzsimmons said.
She said that federal law and the Constitution allow government to interfere with rights such as assembly and religious practice only for compelling purposes, and even then officials must use the least-restrictive means.
For example, the town could have restricted parking either through signs or tickets rather than restrict the prayer meetings.
Despite Judge Fitzsimmons' specific ruling to the contrary, Mr. Byrne insisted the Murphy family had no legal right even to go to court before exhausting options to attack the town action under state law.
On Nov. 29, the Zoning Enforcement Office notified the Murphys in writing that the Sunday prayer meetings "were prohibited" and that allowing guests to use their backyard as a parking lot was illegal.
On Dec. 19, the town ordered the Murphys to "cease and desist." In an effort to compromise, municipal officials suggested reducing the average attendance of 40 to a limit of 24 persons, but the Murphys refused, and the judge upheld them on that score as well.
"This limitation could have a significant impact on the purpose of the prayer sessions if plaintiffs were forced to turn someone away who wanted to participate because 25 other people were already present," Judge Fitzsimmons wrote.

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