Church vs. State

In Grand Haven, Michigan, the Haven Shores Community Church rented storefront space in a shopping plaza to hold worship services. Although the zoning category for the space explicitly allows "assembly halls, concert halls, or similar places of public assembly," not mentioning churches one way or the other, the city zoning board decided a church was not an allowable use. Grand Haven seems to be jumbling the First Amendment: It allows freedom of assembly in a shopping center--as long as it isn't religious in nature.

With the help of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm, the church is suing the city. The Haven Shores holy men want to be allowed to hold services in their storefront and are seeking a symbolic $1 in damages. At press time, a district court has held hearings but has not yet issued a ruling.

Relations between God, man, and zoning board are often troubled. In congressional hearings in 1998 about the proposed Religious Liberty Protection Act, University of Texas constitutional law professor Douglas Laycock testified that smaller faiths--and every faith, he stressed, is small in some municipality--tend to run into zoning problems, with many churches prohibited from existing where they'd like. While conflicts between church and zoners often involve the unbiased application of one zoning law to everyone, Becket Fund spokesman Pat Korten emphasizes that, since all assemblies but religious ones seem to be permitted under Grand Haven's rules, this case is one of blatant discrimination.

In another recent church-state scuffle, embarrassed authorities in Portland, Oregon, backed down from a particularly heavy-handed intervention. A city hearings officer, responding to neighbors complaints, had shut down a free-meals-for-the-homeless program and capped church attendance at 70 at the Sunnyside Centenary Methodist Church. The City Council overturned the decision in early March.

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