For churches and other religious congregations whose building plans crumble against harsh zoning limits, Washington has provided a strong federal guard against local rulings often fueled by not-in-my-neighborhood complaints. The new law also gives a religious freedom boost to prisoners and nursing home patients.
"Religious liberty is a constitutional value of the highest order, and the framers of the Constitution included protection for the free exercise of religion in the very first amendment," said President Clinton in a statement September 22 when he signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The act is a narrow version of a bill that was stymied last year. Nevertheless, it is expected to receive court challenges reflecting opposition from district attorney offices, prison officials and others who contend that the new law will greatly favor religious petitioners over the rights of secular groups and individuals. That view is disputed by the broad coalition that backed the legislation, ranging from civil liberties organizations to conservative Christian groups. "The balance between the needs of religion and the larger community's concerns has been off kilter for far too long," said the ACLU's Terri Schroeder.
Melissa Rogers, counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee, said in a statement that local authorities have tried, among other things, to restrict churches' times of operation and how many people may attend services. "Zoning policies have effectively excluded certain minority faiths from particular residential areas," she said. The law's language, she added in an interview, stipulates that religious groups and individuals must prove that zoning restrictions are "a substantial burden" to religious exercise, and if they succeed, local officials then must show a "compelling" reason to enforce limits. Even then, only the "least restrictive means" may be applied.
Zoning disputes that have had wide attention include New England's first Mormon temple, a three-story building in the Boston suburb of Belmont, which was set to be dedicated October 1 without any of its proposed six steeples. In the Los Angeles area, an Islamic center was denied a modest-height minaret in the early 1990s, and another mosque funded by a Saudi Arabian prince was dedicated in 1998 but opened only last year after numerous concessions to neighborhood complaints. An Orthodox Jewish congregation in Pennsylvania, in an oft-cited case, was denied construction permits over parking issues--despite the fact that on the Sabbath, the day of greatest attendance, Orthodox Jews do not drive. …