Attorney: City laws against churches on rise

Baptist Press
Posted: Dec 17, 2012 4:52 PM

NASHVILLE (BP) -- Cities increasingly are viewing churches as a financial drain, writing laws that make it difficult -- and expensive -- for congregations to build new properties, an Alliance Defending Freedom attorney said at a Conference on the Culture in Nashville.

Kevin Theriot, senior counsel with ADF, said churches "are beneficial to society" but that governments don't always see it that way.

"You would no more tax a church than you would tax a public park," Theriot said at the annual Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission conference in November. "Everybody uses the public park and understands it's good for society."

Theriot took a broad view of religious liberty in American and listed five specific ways it is under attack:

-- Discriminatory laws against churches.

In New York City, the city's Department of Education issued a rule preventing churches from renting school buildings for use on Sundays -- even though the buildings are not in use. Other organizations, though, are allowed to meet. The law, Theriot said, is "singling out churches -- only churches -- for discrimination."

ADF filed a lawsuit, and a lower court judge sided with the churches. But the city appealed. It eventually could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the appeals court rules against the churches and the Supreme Court doesn't get involved, "then you're going to see more schools in other communities around the country trying to exclude churches," Theriot said.

-- Discriminatory zoning codes.

"What's happening is start enacting zoning codes and say, 'We want to reserve this area for economic development. We want to reserve this area for residential housing," Theriot said. "They'll say, 'We don't want any churches in residential areas because it doesn't blend in with the houses and causes too much traffic. ... We don't want them in the economic development areas because they don't pay property taxes and they don't generate income."

Churches do generate income for the surrounding areas, Theriot said.

"How many people go out to eat after church on Sunday or Wednesday?" he asked. "... Churches are finding themselves being zoned out of particular areas. And it's really a reflection of the fact that churches aren't valued as much as they used to be."

ADF has filed suits and won on behalf of churches, he said.

-- Discriminatory property taxes.

Rockland, Maine, has a law, Theriot said, stating that a church's place of worship -- and only its place of worship -- is tax-exempt.

"The church building is exempt, but not the parking lot ... and certainly not any building surrounding the church," he said.

ADF has filed suit in state court against the law, which has "been on the books for quite some time."

The case is Aldersgate United Methodist Church v. City of Rockland.

-- The disruption of church services.

In 2008, Bash Back! -- which describes itself as a group of "gay anarchists" -- secretly placed several of its members among the worshippers at a service of Mt. Hope Church in Michigan. During one moment in the service, members unfurled a pro-homosexuality banner from the balcony, began shouting religious slurs and tossed fliers into the crowd. Two female Bash Back! members also went to the front and kissed near the podium.

ADF represented the church in filing suit against the group, using a pro-choice law -- the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) -- that has a little-noticed section protecting churches. It had never been used in court to defend a congregation, Theriot said.

In 2011 a federal judge issued an order preventing the group from disrupting churches again. If they do so, they could be held in contempt of court and fined $10,000.

-- Same-sex marriage.

As gay marriage becomes more widespread, Theriot said, churches that open up their facilities to the public are beginning to ask: Are they going to be forced to allow a same-sex ceremony on their property? For one Methodist property in New Jersey, the answer apparently is yes.

New Jersey courts have ruled that a beachfront property owned by United Methodists violated state non-discrimination laws when it refused to host a lesbian couple's civil union ceremony. New Jersey legalized civil unions in 2006. The couple made the request in 2007.

Churches, Theriot said, should state very specifically in their bylaws what their beliefs are on marriage.

"We recommend that they state it positively -- that the church believes that sex is only permissible within the confines of marriage and marriage is between one man and one woman," Theriot said. "They don't need to necessarily to put anything in there about homosexual behavior."

Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook ( ) and in your email (

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