In Hazel Park, Michigan, city authorities have been doing their red-tape best to gerrymander a local congregation, Salvation Temple Church, out of the district. Happily, a federal judge is making it his business to introduce the town fathers to the First Amendment.
It’s a case not unlike others the Alliance Defense Fund and its allies are litigating across the country. A year ago, Salvation Temple Church signed an agreement to purchase a vacant banquet hall in the city’s commercial district as a meeting place for its 125 to 150 members. Officials soon reminded them of a 2005 amendment to local zoning ordinances – an amendment that excludes religious use of property in commercial and industrial zones. In other words, the church could only purchase property in a residential district.
Unable to use the building they’d contracted to buy, the church began looking for a place to meet in the residential areas, only to discover what city officials already knew: that there was no space available in the residential districts.
Interestingly, non-religious groups faced none of these hurdles to city approval. So, the church applied to the local Board of Appeals for an exception. The board said no … which left Salvation Temple with no place to meet and nowhere to turn except: the Alliance Defense Fund.
Daniel Dalton of Dalton, Tomich, & Pensler, PLC, in Bloomfield Hills – one of nearly 1,900 attorneys in the ADF alliance – agreed to represent the church, filing suit in October in U.S. District Court. He argued that Hazel Park violated a) the church’s constitutionally protected rights to freedom of speech, assembly, equal protection, and exercise of religion, and b) the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act(RLUIPA), which prevents zoning officials from singling out churches and other religious groups for discrimination. He also filed a motion for preliminary injunction, to invalidate the offending ordinance while the case moved forward.
A month later, the city agreed to settle the case. A federal judge affirmed that inclination, issuing a court order on December 6 prohibiting the city from enforcing the ordinance that bans religious groups, and only religious groups, from using buildings on commercial property.
“Churches shouldn’t be singled out for discrimination and kept from practicing their faith in their own building by a city’s zoning restrictions,” says Dalton. “City officials cannot restrict assemblies to purely non-religious activities. They intentionally changed their policy a few years ago to eliminate religious use so that they could increase their tax revenue, and that’s simply not legal. The city has finally done the right thing in agreeing to respect this church’s rights, protected by both the Constitution and federal law.”
“The ordinance’s aim was clearly to keep tax-paying entities on commercial parcels,” says ADF Senior Counsel Joseph Infranco. “We hope other cities will follow Hazel Park’s lead and remove these types of unconstitutional prohibitions from zoning ordinances across the nation.”
Please pray for churches and religious groups nationwide who are increasingly facing this kind of legal persecution and for ADF and its allies as we work to reverse this worrisome trend.
Imagine if you had escaped government oppression in search of freedom and safety for your family in a new country—only to be greeted yet again with the government treading on Constitutional rights.
As pandemic restrictions have begun to ease over the last few months, churches and religious organizations have started to ask: If this happens again, how can we ensure that religious freedom is protected?