Are All Churches Free to Locate Anywhere? Let’s See

As the fight rages on, to prevent a Muslim mosque and community center within feet of the “sacred ground” where the World Trade Center stood before a terrorist attack, one of the official excuses for not intervening is that,”They have the right to put a place of worship anywhere they want; this is America with separation of church and state.”  Basically, the  government’s official stance is that their hands are tied.

Is this accurate?  Are churches, parochial schools even Bible studies allowed to build “wherever they want”?

Well, according to the Department of Justice/DOJ Web site:

The right to build, buy, or lease a place to assemble for worship is an indispensable part of religious freedom. For many faith groups, the same is true of schools for religious instruction. Religious groups simply cannot exercise their faiths without facilities adequate for their needs.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed in 2000 because there were so many churches having problems obtaining permission to build, convert or enlarge their meeting places.  Aside: I find it odd that this act included prisons and halfway houses as well as religious buildings, but I digress.  When the legislation was passed, Brad Dacus, president of the Pacific Justice Institute said, “This is the most powerful, far-reaching federal civil rights statute impacting churches that has ever been enacted in history.”  Further, “The number one curtailment for church growth in the United States today, according to pastors, is not lack of members or lack of money. It’s local governments saying `We don’t want you.'”

You would think a piece of legislation would solve all the problems, right?

No, it’s not that easy,  there are still enough cases in litigation that there is a non profit  organization, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, solely devoted to defending churches against government prohibitions.

One lawyer has made a specialty of defending churches against discrimination and he is kept very busy! Please indulge me and read a little, about a select few cases:

1. Castle Hills First Baptist Church

…which was established in the early 1950s, is in the unfortunate position of being located within a jurisdiction that may well be the most anti-church city in the United States. A suburb of San Antonio, Texas, the city has gone to extraordinary lengths to drive churches out of town.

They enjoyed tremendous growth over several years and eventually purchased six residential lots across from the church for additional parking. Then they applied for a permit.

In the ensuing months, city officials negotiated a proposed settlement that would allow the parking lots to be built, only to have the City Council vote them down. They also rejected three other applications to proceed with the project. A study done by the city’s own traffic engineer showed that development of the church’s new parking lot would actually improve traffic conditions in the area, but the report was ignored. During the course of its consideration, the city demanded that the church provide and pay for additional reports related to the aesthetics, drainage, air quality and traffic impact of the new parking lots. When the church met all the requirements, the city council simply ignored them and denied the permit.

Two years of legal wrangling followed before the church was finally found to have the right to build a parking lot.

2. Carlinville Southern Baptist Church, located in Carlinville, Illinois…

…thought how blessed it was when it purchased a former Wal-Mart store in early 2008 to have a home. The Church had worshiped in its building for several years prior, but grew rapidly to the point that it needed to expand or move to accommodate its members and to continue to serve the community. The property it found, originally a 60,000 square foot Wal-Mart store was zoned commercial and the religious use was permitted as of right.

While the Church was thrilled, the City was not. The City of Carlinville’s intentionally and deliberately tried to preclude Carlinville Southern Baptist Church from the City by using all means necessary from occupying its building for worship. The main reason behind this stubborn behavior boils down to money.  The City does not want to give up the property to a tax-exempt Church when it could gain revenue from a commercial use.  Therefore, after the City learned the Church entered into an agreement to purchase the property, it changed the zoning. And once they were notified that the zoning change violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, (“RLUIPA”) 42 USC 2000cc et seq., it changed the zoning three more times in an effort to keep the church out.  It then filed suit against the Church on a “nuisance” theory.

After months of law:

The settlement proposal came through a resolution enacted by the City Council at its meeting of Monday, September 15, 2008.  Carlinville Southern Baptist Church was informed that if it accepted the offer, the settlement would be completed as the City would then vote on a special land use ordinance at its meeting of Monday, October 6, 2008.  The Church agreed to the terms. However, two days before the City Council meeting, the City provided the Church final version of the settlement agreement and, for the first time, the proposed easement.  The Church reviewed the easement and discovered that it included not only the parking lot, but also 50 feet of the Church’s building.

At the end of a year of  legalities and negotiations the Carlinville Southern Baptist Church finally reached an agreement with the city which contained an easement only on the parking lot.

3. Cottonwood Christian Center v. City of Cypress

The story of how officials in Cypress, California used subterfuge, delay and stunningly unethical tactics to take away property owned by the Cottonwood Christian Center is an extraordinary account of abuse of governmental power and cavalier disregard of basic constitutional rights.

Several years ago, church members raised funds to purchase property to build a much larger facility. They spent more than a year buying up parcels from multiple landowners, finally sewing up a 17.9 acre property in a redevelopment area near the Los Alamitos Race Course at a cost of $13 million. The property purchased by the church had been largely vacant for decades.

They drew up plans for a 300,000 square foot worship center with seating for more than 4,700, a youth center, daycare center, gymnasium, and other facilities to serve the congregation.

In October 2000, Cottonwood filed an extensive application for a Conditional Use Permit (“CUP”), that went well beyond the city’s requirements. But a few weeks later, the city rejected it, citing omission of a Preliminary Design Review, despite the fact that the application itself states that such a review is optional. The following day (a Friday), the city sent the church a letter—by ordinary mail—informing them of a City Council meeting on Monday, at which it would adopt a moratorium on any new permit applications in the redevelopment area.

Judge David O Carter heard the case and declared, “”Preventing a church from building a worship site fundamentally inhibits its ability to practice its religion. Churches are central to the religious exercise of most religions. If Cottonwood could not build a church, it could not exist,” the judge wrote. More selected excerpts from the order make clear the breadth of the court’s finding that “the public interest is decidedly in favor of granting the injunction.

After two years of obstruction on the part of the city an agreement was finally reached wherein the city paid $18 million for the church’s property and the church bought a golf course in the same development with the proceeds.

4. River of Life Kingdom Ministries

There is a church in the Village of Hazel Crest, outside Chicago, called River of Life Kingdom Ministries. It is a small church with 40 to 60 regular attendees, but one deeply committed to worship and outreach.

Since 2003, the congregation has leased a property in Chicago Heights for its meetings. The church’s access was limited to Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, and every third Saturday. In 2007, eager to expand its programs and outreach, the church took steps to acquire a property in Hazel Crest. As part of the process, the church applied in September 2007 for a special use permit, which was required to use the property. Four months later, in January of this year, the Village Board of Trustees denied the permit by a vote of 6-1, and the church found itself unable to use its own building.

The permit is required because the Village of Hazel Crest does not permit churches in any zoning district, without special permission from officials.

The church lost the case and was prohibited from holding services in the building it purchased because the city had zoned the area a commercial area.

5. Sunnyside United Methodist Church

In February, 2000, a state land-use official shocked Portland-area religious leaders by telling the Sunnyside United Methodist Church in southeast Portland that it could allow no more than 70 people at one time into its 400-seat sanctuary for Sunday services.[1] A local uproar soon led this decision to be rescinded, but numerous other restrictions on the church’s activities were left in place.

This wasn’t the only time Oregon land-use rules had infringed on the separation between church and state. When the First Presbyterian Church in the southern Oregon town of Jacksonville had outgrown its building, it applied for a routine permit to build a larger church. The city said it would permit the new church only if no more than 40 cars used the church parking lot on weekdays; there were no services on Sunday evenings; the church would be closed on Saturdays; and the church would hold no more than five weddings and/or funerals per year.[2] When the church refused to accept these conditions, the city simply denied the permit, saying that it would lead to too much congestion. The church is appealing the decision.[3]

6. The Elijah Group

A small Protestant church in Leon Valley, an enclave within the city of San Antonio, is challenging a zoning code that prohibits the church from holding Sunday worship services. The city code excludes religious assemblies from some zoning areas because they decrease the city’s tax revenue and interfere with commercial activity.

In 2007, revisions to the city code excluded churches from most of the city to maximize tax revenues, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty reports. Auditoriums, convention centers, private clubs and schools are free to locate in the city’s retail zones, but churches are not.

The Elijah Group, an Evangelical Christian church, bought an existing church building in the city’s retail zones and so ran afoul of the new code.

On Monday the Becket Fund filed a brief in a federal appeals court defending the right of the church group to hold worship services in its building.

“It is shocking that a church would not be allowed to hold church services because they are not profitable to the city,” commented Lori Windham, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 reportedly requires cities to treat churches on equal terms with secular assemblies.

Windham said Leon Valley’s claim has “enormous” implications for churches across Texas and would set a precedent allowing cities to treat churches worse than secular assemblies.

Fast forward to the Imam’s intent to build a mosque on the  Ground Zero property. We are told that, “They own the land and they can do whatever they want on it.”  I find it incredible that Lower Manhattan has no zoning laws, no ordinances.  Oh well let’s see maybe they do have some….

In Human Events, we see this previously untold story:

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, which once sat right across the street from the World Trade Center, was crushed under the weight of the collapse of Tower Two on September 11, 2001. St. Nicholas was the only church to be lost in the attacks, and nine years later, while City of New York officials are busy removing every impediment to the building of the Cordoba mosque two blocks from the site, St. Nicholas’ future remains unclear.

The last bit of hopeful news for St. Nicholas came two years ago, in July 2008, when church officials and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey announced a deal which would have allowed the church to be rebuilt about two blocks from its original location.

However, The deal fell apart for Goodin March 2009, when the Port Authority abruptly ended the talks after refusing to allow church officials to review plans for the garage and screening area underneath. Sixteen months later, the two sides have still not met to resume negotiations.

Yet the Ground Zero “Cordoba” Mosque project has been put on the fast track for completion (a desired opening date of 9/11/2011, the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack is the Imam’s goal).

George Demos is a Republican running in New York’s 1st Congressional District. Demos has made the Cordoba mosque an issue in his campaign, even though his district is on Eastern Long Island, and is highlighting the plight of St. Nicholas Church.

Asked what prompted him to take up St. Nicholas’ cause, Demos said the apparent favorable treatment the mosque’s developers received served to illuminate the issue to him as simply a question of right versus wrong.“This is not a partisan issue,” he said. “It’s an issue of fair-minded candidates for office stepping up and doing the right thing. The focus should be something we can all agree on—getting the church rebuilt.

This differing opinion, from the Ottawa Citizen, was written by Canadian Muslims:

New York currently boasts at least 30 mosques so it’s not as if there is pressing need to find space for worshipers. The fact we Muslims know the idea behind the Ground Zero mosque is meant to be a deliberate provocation to thumb our noses at the infidel. The proposal has been made in bad faith and in Islamic parlance, such an act is referred to as “Fitna,” meaning “mischief-making” that is clearly forbidden in the Koran.

The Koran commands Muslims to, “Be considerate when you debate with the People of the Book” — i.e., Jews and Christians. Building an exclusive place of worship for Muslims at the place where Muslims killed thousands of New Yorkers is not being considerate or sensitive, it is undoubtedly an act of ‘fitna.’

As Muslims we are dismayed that our co-religionists have such little consideration for their fellow citizens and wish to rub salt in their wounds and pretend they are applying a balm to sooth the pain.

As a Christian, I am the first person to join forces to fight alongside any legitimate faith community that is being restricted or denied the freedom of expression guaranteed within our Constitution. Yet, there must be reasonable restrictions to freedom, just as one’s freedom of speech does not include the right to “yell fire in a crowded theater” and your liberty ends where mine begins (you may not necessarily party all night and play music so loud that it can be heard inside my home).  So, we must rightly and carefully judge when a self described  religious group endangers the community.

What person would insist that Jim Jones’ People’s Temple should be granted a permit to build a church in their community?  We have in the case of the Cordoba proposal, not a place of worship being built to serve the people in the community, but a multipurpose community center with a section set aside for religious practice.  There is no established congregation and it would be one of many mosques in the area, so there is no lack of easily accessible, like places of worship, there.  This is not so much a bridge  as it is a beachhead; a stronghold from which to conquer the occupying enemy.

This building is being built in a specific location in order to send the sinister message to the Muslim world, that, “We have conquered America.” The message goes over the heads of  many Americans.  It is an in-your-face statement, not necessarily understood in our culture by the freedom-loving, tolerant American populace, but fully understood by those who plan harm for us.

The law protects people from a dangerous person who would yell fire in a crowded theater, because doing so could result in injury or death. The law must also protect people from those who hate the freedom of the American way of life — from those who demand human sacrifice and murder as tenets of their faith and whose teachings endanger the lives of innocent citizens.

Janet Smiles, a contributor to Gulag Bound, is an advocate of Internet and person-to-person activism, to overcome the false taboos of “avoiding faith and politics” with well-behaved and vital communication, for the sake of love for our neighbors.  She welcomes comments directed to


  1. It doesn’t stop!

    A leader of the Hamas terror group yesterday jumped into the emotional debate on the plan to construct a mosque near Ground Zero — insisting Muslims “have to build” it there.

    “We have to build everywhere,” said Mahmoud al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas and the organization’s chief on the Gaza Strip.

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