In a zoning Catch-22, a small Christian congregation in Bedford, New Hampshire, is being told by local officials that because it got permission to add a meeting hall to a house it uses for church services, it has to stop using that house to host church services.
The church is now suing Bedford, arguing that municipal authorities are restricting its gatherings solely because of their religious nature.
"A determination that religious use is different and [that] you can't have people gather in a living room if its purpose is religious is clear overreach," says Michael Tierney, an attorney representing Bedford's New Hope Christian Fellowship. "It's unconscionable."
In March 2020, the New Hope Christian Fellowship purchased a 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom home on a rural property along a state highway in Bedford. The plan had always been to use the building to host Sunday services, prayer meetings, and other church activities the congregation couldn't do at their prior meeting place—a martial arts studio.
After a pandemic-induced pause on in-person services, New Hope started hosting Sunday services in the home's living room. Their complaint states that there were never more than 20 people in attendance.
Hoping to grow their small congregation, the church also received approval from Bedford's Planning Board in October 2020 for a project that would convert and expand an existing garage on the property to be a new meeting hall and add a parking lot.
Soon enough, New Hope volunteers got to work adding the parking lot and renovating the garage.
Church services proceeded without incident until October 2021. That was when New Hope received a cease-and-desist order from the town of Bedford stating that the church was operating without a required certificate of occupancy and would need to acquire one before it could host meetings again.
Tierney says that this took the congregation by surprise, given that the house it had been meeting out of had a valid certificate of occupancy issued back in 1994 when it was first built.
In response, the church stopped hosting Sunday services. It also filed an appeal of the cease-and-desist letter with Bedford's Zoning Board of Adjustment.
At a December 2021 meeting, zoning board officials said that when the town approved the church's expansion plans, it changed the use of the property from residential to a church. That meant a new certificate of occupancy for a church couldn't be granted until New Hope finished its planned meeting hall and came into compliance with the conditions attached with the approval of that hall.
The upshot of all this red tape was that New Hope wasn't allowed to keep meeting in the home it owned, despite nothing changing about their meetings or the physical structure of the house itself.
Tierney argued at that December meeting that New Hope's prayer services were still just 10–20 people meeting in a living room—similar to a baby shower or Cub Scout meeting. A new certificate of occupancy would be required for use of the new meeting hall, but the use of the preexisting, unchanged single-family home shouldn't be affected, he said.
In a public comment period, New Hope members said that while they were willing "render onto Bedford what is Bedford's" they had also been good neighbors up to this point and wished to use the property as they always had.
"Have there been any complaints of a backup of traffic on [Route] 101? Have there been any complaints from any of our neighbors that we made too much noise when we were doing our construction?" said one congregant in a public comment. "I don't think that you're treating us equally. That's what the crux of this thing is about. We're not being treated equal."
These arguments proved unpersuasive. The zoning board rejected New Hope's appeal at the December meeting.
In March, the church sued the town in the local superior court. Its petition claims that Bedford's cease-and-desist letter violates both the New Hampshire and U.S. Constitution's protections of religious freedom as well as the federal Religious Land Use Institutionalized Persons' Act.
Town officials contend that they are treating New Hope no differently from any other institution that might want to set up shop in Bedford.
"All projects, whether it's a bank or retail site or religious institution, need site plan approval by the planning board. And then they would get a building permit, they would complete the improvements as shown on the building permits, and they would get inspections and be issued a certificate of occupancy," said Bedford Town Manager Rick Sawyer to the New Hampshire Bulletin, which first reported on the story in July.
Tierney tells Reason that New Hope and Bedford have a planned mediation meeting in September and that hopefully the zoning issue is resolved.
He stresses that town officials aren't attempting to correct for any supposed externality or nuisance the church or its members are causing, noting that they have no problem with potentially more disruptive construction activity.
"The town is OK with the church member volunteers going out there and doing construction but not okay with them going out there and reading the Bible together," Tierney says. "No town should be regulating based on the purpose of the gathering."