The conflict between church interests and local zoning laws is not a new phenomenon; in the United States, communities have often sought to restrict church building expansions and, perhaps to a lesser extent, church activities in the public realm. The chief question at the heart of the issue is to what extent a congregation has the right to practice its religious freedom unimpeded.
The conflict between church public outreach and the concerns of the surrounding neighborhood has reached the federal court in Phoenix, Arizona, where city officials have ordered a halt to a CrossRoads United Methodist Church’s breakfast for the homeless in an upscale neighborhood park. Officials, who say the event violates zoning laws, instituted the ban in response to complaints from neighbors about the alleged criminal activity of some of the event’s homeless participants. According to Amanda Lee Myers of the Associated Press, “Residents say the homeless create blight and pose a danger to them, pointing to the case of a homeless felon caught with child pornography in the neighborhood”. “[S]ome have stuck around and have urinated in yards or broken into cars”, claims resident Jason Morris, who argues, “[The ban is] about a law that applies to every property owner.” Church pastor Rev. Dottie Escobedo-Frank argues, “It doesn’t make sense that they would leave here, where there’s a bathroom, and go urinate on someone’s yard”. The man possessing the child pornography was found in an alley just outside the home of Kevin Swatich. However, Escobedo-Frank claims that the incident was an isolated one and happened months prior.
But does CrossRoads Church have the freedom to carry out its charitable services in public parks despite the concerns of neighbors, or is its freedom limited by certain responsibilities which all citizens and corporations are granted? Exactly how far does freedom to practice religion extend?
On one hand, the actions of the city potentially violate First Amendment protections for religious freedom, argues Kevin Theriot, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a Scottsdale-based legal group which takes on legal cases in defense of Christian congregations. “Feeding the homeless and feeding those who are hungry has been recognized as an important religious belief for years,” he says, according to Myers. “My guess is if they were serving a pancake breakfast to local neighborhood folks that aren’t homeless, then nobody would have a problem.” Theriot claims the homeless event was banned because city
officials target the homeless in an attempt to keep them invisible. On the other hand, residents posit that the First Amendment does not cover unimpeded church activity, and that the same laws which apply to citizens apply to religious organizations: “This has never been about the First Amendment,” Morris says. “It’s about a law that applies to every property owner.”
Whether or not Morris is correct in his assessment, it is becoming more difficult for local jurisdictions to restrict public religious events: in 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a law which guarantees greater protection for religious groups in zoning disputes and requires solid evidence to show that the event endangers the public.
Exactly what constitutes religious freedom? As the above law already presupposes, religious organizations do not possess the religious freedom to impinge on the civil or human rights of other citizens or entities. Given this stipulation, why should faith groups be exempt from zoning laws and permitted, for example, to build outlandish suburban “mega-churches”—only too often segregated along class and race boundaries—on wetlands, farms, and other delicate ecosystems? After all, such unregulated growth might arguably impinge on the rights of the general population to have access to sustainable natural resources and recreational opportunities.
Of course, the breakfast in the park held by CrossRoads Church does not exactly constitute environmental degradation. However, it is a church event held in a public park, and the community who swayed officials to ban the event provided tenuous evidence that the homeless participants vandalized property or generally threatened the children of the community; indeed, what stands out most of all seems to be an underlying classism.
It is probably a blessing that online churches such as Universal Life Church Monastery avoid this problem by conducting their public outreach largely through the medium of the Internet and smaller and more frequent worship celebrations in our Seattle Sanctuary’s Le Jardin.
Still, the use of public space is a concern for most churches. We always welcome the thoughts of our ministers; give us your opinion on this matter.
The Seattle Times