When Freedom of Religion Intersects with Municipal Zoning

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August 2, 2011; Source: Herkimer TelegramIn Newport, New York, the Kuyahoora Community Outreach Center is considering a civil rights suit against the Village of Newport. The Christian-based community organization believes it is facing discrimination by local government officials. The organization provided adult daycare services in its early years, when it worked with two nursing homes operating under a conditional variance. Now, operating independently of the nursing homes, the Center has shifted its focus, according to the Telegram, to “more Christian-based activities.” But the Center’s location in an agricultural district is not zoned for faith-based activities, and when it wanted to renew its original zoning variance, the Village of Newport zoning board denied the Center’s request.

According to the zoning board, “The zoning laws had no design in mind for allowing churches to be built in the village” and even lacked a category or definition for “church” or “parachurch.” The Center contends that the zoning laws of the Village of Newport should be amended to match the zoning laws of the Town of Newport, which do define churches and allow for them in residential and agricultural zones.

The Center believes that the village zoning board’s decision is a First Amendment freedom of religion violation. The Center’s board cites a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which says, according to a board member, that “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden . . . furthers compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means of furthering government interest . . . No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.”

Obviously, there are implications here for freedom of religion, but there are also implications for nonprofit land use decision-making, as the village’s decision might have just as easily have been applied to a nonprofit organization providing something other than traditional nonprofit services. For the moment, the Kuyahoora Community Outreach Center, which had been providing such nondenominational Christian-based charitable activities as Bible studies, exercise classes, and community choir rehearsals, is closed down.–Rick Cohen

  • James Charles

    Rick, thanks for covering this topic, which as you note has both nonprofit and religious implications.