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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Holy zones

Churches soon will have new legal heft on their side in zoning disputes. A law passed overwhelmingly by Congress — and, at presstime, awaiting President Clinton's expected signature — requires local governments to prove a "compelling interest" to restrict religious groups in building or razing houses of worship or in their use of the structures.

The ELCA, through the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs, Washington, D.C., joined more than 80 religious and legal advocacy groups in supporting the legislation. Russell O. Siler, LOGA director, says the law will restore longstanding First Amendment protections that were taken away in a 1990 Supreme Court decision. Called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the law follows the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the Supreme Court struck down in 1997, ruling it violated states' rights.

Siler expects the law to offer churches "needed leverage" in community disputes — whether challenges to serving meals to the homeless and providing shelter in their buildings or to opposition to new construction. "An awful lot of different circumstances come up in communities." he says, "Churches can use this law to negotiate."

Andy Waters, ELCA Mission Investment Fund vice president, fears the law probably won't "change a lot." He says, "There are lots of other ways local people can influence whether a church gets built or not. "Land use issues aren't just 'yes' and 'no.' "

Among the 40 parcels of MIF-owned land, he cited one property that has passed the zoning hurdles. "But the community is saying there have to be road improvements and traffic lights before building — and 'by the way, you folks have to pay for part of them,' " Waters says. Those costs would easily equal the price the congregation would pay the fund for the property. "Before they'd dig their first shovel, they'd be in the hole $600,000," he says. "They may not be able to afford that."

Provisions of the bill also support the rights of prison inmates and residents of mental hospitals to practice their faith freely.


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