- The Washington Times - Monday, January 22, 2001

Robert and Mary Murphy got a surprise piece of news on Nov. 29. They could not pray with a group of family and friends in their own house.

The family had been having informal, racially mixed prayer meetings in their New Milford, Conn., home for the past seven years.

But the city zoning commission ruled six weeks ago the family's prayer meetings were violating zoning laws and ordered them to stop the gatherings.

The Murphys' attorney, Vincent McCarthy, calls the zoning commission's order a way to "censor" a family that "only wants to use their own private residence for prayer in a legal and lawful manner."

The Roman Catholic family's prayer meetings, where up to 30 of their family and friends gather, usually run from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. Dinner follows. About 20 cars park in the street around the house each Sunday, says Patrick Murphy, the adult son of Robert and Mary Murphy and the family spokesman.

The Murphys have been meeting this way since 1994. But when the family started receiving complaints from neighbors about their guests' cars, the Murphys had their prayer partners park in their own yard.

They also had plans to add a 20-by-63-foot home addition and a paved rear parking lot. The family finished the addition to the family room, but in November the zoning commission told them they could not construct the parking lot.

Steve Byrne, the zoning commission's attorney, says the neighbors assumed the Murphys were creating a small church.

On Nov. 28, the zoning commission decided the prayer meetings had to stop. The next day, the Murphys received a letter from zoning officials saying that regular prayer meetings of 25 to 40 non-family members plus a parking lot to accommodate those people constitutes a zoning violation.

On Dec. 1, the American Center for Law and Justice, a law firm associated with the Christian Coalition, filed suit on behalf of the Murphys in federal district court. But on Dec. 20, the town of New Milford issued a cease-and-desist order against the Murphys' prayer meetings. A judge granted the family a temporary restraining order against the town the next day, but limited the prayer meetings to 25 non-family members.

A judge extended the restraining order on Thursday. The court should decide the case next month.

The city of Denver settled in a similar case in December 1999 with a couple who filed a federal lawsuit over a zoning regulation allowing them only one prayer meeting a month in their home.

An Orthodox Jewish couple fought a similar battle in Owings Mills, Md., where they held monthly prayer services for at least 10 Jewish men in their home. The couple was fined $1,000 after a neighbor accused them of running a church in their basement, but a Baltimore County code official ruled in favor of the couple on appeal.

Nevertheless, these cases don't mark a trend in religious discrimination by local authorities, says Edward Tabash, chairman of the First Amendment Task Force for the Council for Secular Humanism.

"What I see is a trend to keep residential neighborhoods from being congested with a parking lot," he says.

The Center for Law and Justice is "making a mountain out of a molehill," says Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

"I'm afraid they are just trying to get special treatment because they are religious," Mr. Lynn says. "You have to look at all the facts and circumstances of the situation; is the zoning regulation reasonable?"

But Mr. McCarthy maintains the zoning regulations are vague and do not spell out how large or how often residents can hold meetings of any type in their homes.

"This is clearly a case where the zoning authorities have overstepped their authority by determining our clients cannot use their private residence for weekly prayer meetings," he said.

The New Milford zoning commission has posted a Web site (www.newmilford.org/murphy) giving its side of the story. The page lists 13 complaints from the neighborhood, including "incidents of rock throwing" and disruption of the "quiet, residential nature of the neighborhood." The neighbors also complained of "unknown people lurking in the neighborhood."

Mr. Murphy calls these claims "ridiculous" and says the rock-throwing probably amounted to 4-year-olds kicking rocks around in the street. He maintains the meetings are peaceful.

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