- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2001

A west Michigan city that had blocked a church from opening in a business district storefront has relented after conceding the church's rights under a new federal land-use law.

Lawyers for the Haven Shores Community Church in its battle with Grand Haven, Mich., said it was the first known legal application of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), signed into law in September by President Clinton.

"Grand Haven officials did the right thing in settling the suit," said lawyer Kevin J. Hasson, whose Becket Fund for Religious Liberty defended the congregation.

"This case is a wake-up call for other communities that assume they have nearly unlimited latitude in using zoning laws to severely restrict churches and other religious organizations," he said.

Zoning restrictions on houses of worship, one of the most common church-state conflicts in the past two decades, took center stage in 1997 when the Supreme Court ruled that Texas city officials could restrict changes to a historic Roman Catholic church.

To circumvent the Supreme Court ruling, a special law on land use was pushed by Rep. Charles T. Canady, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution.

Groups such as the National Organization of Counties had opposed the law, saying it gave religious groups a privileged exemption from zoning, but no one yet has challenged the law.

In Grand Haven, the church sued the city last March over the zoning ruling. When President Clinton signed the law in September, the church added its federal authority to the lawsuit.

Last week, in a consent judgment approved by a district court judge, the city agreed that the wording of its zoning ordinance which allowed for "places of assembly" but not churches was in conflict with the federal law.

"The city initially fought the lawsuit, but when RLUIPA became law, officials concluded that there was little chance that they would succeed," a statement by the Becket Fund said.

Zoning disputes often arise over church soup kitchens or homeless shelters in suburbs, expansion of church facilities, parking squeezes on Sunday, breaches of noise ordinances or clashes over types and sizes of meetings allowed under zoning permits.

The new federal law, however, has set a tone that favors the religious groups in these disputes.

Last month, New Jersey newspapers reported that the Philadelphia suburb of Willingboro, N.J., backed off its earlier refusal to let the Hispanic Assembly of God build in a business zone.

The new religious land-use law states the zoning ordinance may "not place a substantial burden on the exercise of religion, unless there is a compelling government reason for doing so." If there is a compelling interest, the restriction must be the "least restrictive of religious exercise."

The law also protects the religious expression of people in institutions such as mental hospitals or prisons "in ways that do not undermine the security, discipline and order of their institutions."

These protections were lost, advocates said, in a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that said government did not need to show a compelling interest to restrict religion.

To remedy that, Congress and Mr. Clinton enacted the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the high court struck down in 1997.

Mr. Hasson said that zoning and free exercise disputes are likely to continue. "This is the first victory under RLUIPA, but it won't be the last," he said.

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