Give Thanks for Your Magistrate Which Beareth the Plat

This Sunday many of our churches will include prayer for the magistrate. We’ll pray that the magistrate govern wisely and we’ll be thankful for religious freedom. Then we’ll give thanks for the societal order we have and give a special prayer of thanks for local Zoning Board. Well, okay, maybe we’ll just do the first two but we should be thankful for zoning.

Zoning is pro-family and pro-religion. After all, zoning is what keeps your residential area separate from commercial enterprises. In so doing, it minimizes the uncertainty of large numbers of strangers and hazardous vehicle traffic. Zoning also keeps a slaughterhouse from buying up the block across the street and begin to haul hogs in and out with semi-trucks. Zoning prohibits heavy industry and strip clubs from opening next to your church.

In light of the benefits of zoning law, compliance is simply one way of being a good neighbor.

A good neighbor doesn’t put a big billboard in his front yard and defend it on free speech grounds. He doesn’t put a chicken house in a residential neighborhood and defend it on libertarian grounds. And he doesn’t bring fifty people to a weekly Bible study and defend it as a matter of religious freedom. Describing that recent case, The Wall Street Journal summarized:

After hosting several periodic Bible studies for up to 50 people in their home in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., the Fromms were fined $300 for violating a city ordinance that prohibits groups of three or more people from gathering without a permit. The couple appealed and city officials agreed last month to reimburse them and re-examine the ordinance…

From a distance it seems rude to be regularly bringing 50 people into a neighborhood and it seems shrill to play the persecution card when someone complains, but maybe there are some facts that would put the Fromms in a better light. Either way, their story suggests what to do if a local zoning board should be unjust to Bible studies or churches. You know about our constitutional right to Free Exercise of Religion, but maybe you don’t know about the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) which, in part, reads:

GENERAL RULE- 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 on that person, assembly, or institution–
(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and
(B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

…DISCRIMINATION AND EXCLUSION-

(1) EQUAL TERMS- 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.
(2) NONDISCRIMINATION- No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination.
(3) EXCLUSIONS AND LIMITS- No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation that–
(A) totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction; or
(B) unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.

Of course, federal court cases show how the law is being applied, but there is an overview and Q & A supplied by the Department of Justice for further information.

Yes, maybe you were hassled over how you built your deck and it’s true that land use regulations can go too far. But, on the whole, it’s a pretty good system that separates one land use from another and gives protection when religion is unjustly injured. Give ye thanks for your magistrate the Zoning Board.

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Filed under Courts, Free exercise of religion

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