Trump Administration Wades Into Local Zoning Dispute, Backing a Church Over a Village

Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Washington.

Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building, Friday, June 19, 2015, in Washington. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

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Christian Fellowship Centers of New York claims the local regulations are discriminatory and unconstitutional.

The Trump administration is throwing its support behind a church locked in a contentious dispute with a small village in upstate New York over whether zoning regulations prohibit a place of religious worship from opening in the village’s commercial district.

Both the church and the U.S. Department of Justice say this restriction is illegal under federal law.

Christian Fellowship Centers of New York, Inc. last year bought a three-story building for $310,000 in Canton, a village about 20 miles south of the Canadian border with around 6,500 residents. The building in the past has housed restaurants and bars.

But the church hit roadblocks when it sought the village’s approval to use the property for religious services and other activities, with the zoning board of appeals ruling in January that religious assemblies weren’t permitted in the village’s “C-1” retail commercial zone.

Christian Fellowship Centers says in court filings the village informed them that churches were not being treated unequally under the zoning code because New York law places restrictions on liquor licenses for establishments within 200 feet of a place of worship.

“The Village concluded, therefore, that the Church was not similar to the other permitted nonreligious assembly uses,” the church’s lawyers wrote in a complaint filed last month in U.S. Federal District Court for the Northern District of New York.

The village zoning code permits businesses like restaurants, motels, bowling alleys and theaters in its C-1 zone.

Around the time the lawsuit was filed, Canton planning board member Nick Kocher raised concerns about how locating the church in the commercial district could affect other businesses there, North Country Public Radio reported at the time.

“When you look at the impact a church might have on potential future development? The most obvious one has to do with [state liquor laws] and a restaurant coming in that would want a liquor license or something like that," Kocher said, according to the radio station.

Earlier local news reports show planning board officials also called into question whether there was enough parking at the site, while a former village mayor speaking as a member of the public voiced frustration over the church’s tax-exempt status.

The village this week referred an inquiry about the case to its lawyer, who didn't return phone and email messages requesting comment.

In its lawsuit, the church alleges the village’s zoning code is in violation of a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which includes provisions intended to shield religious institutions from discrimination under zoning and landmarking laws.

The church also argues the village is impeding its Constitutional rights under both the Equal Protection Clause, which requires governments to treat similarly situated people in similar ways, and the First Amendment, which protects free speech and the exercise of religion.

Christian Fellowship Centers of New York has been active in the northern part of the state since 1974 and has established multiple churches throughout the area.

It’s been operating in Canton since 2016, where its Sunday service attendance averages about 80 people. Up until last August the church rented space from another church. After its lease expired it met at a state university, and has rented space at a local Best Western hotel.

Representing the church is Mauck and Baker, LLC, a Chicago law firm that says it specializes in defending ministries and places of worship.

On March 7, lawyers for the church filed a motion for a preliminary or permanent injunction in the case, asking the court to declare the village’s zoning code unlawful, and to block officials from enforcing it in a way that prevents the church from using its property for worship.

The Justice Department on Tuesday filed a “statement of interest” in the case backing the church’s motion for a preliminary injunction.

“Canton’s zoning law cannot stand because it prohibits religious assemblies and worship in zoning districts that permit non-commercial secular assemblies,” the brief says. “The Christian Fellowship Center should have an easy victory.”

The Justice Department last July announced the formation of a Religious Liberty Task Force to coordinate work on litigation and policy related to the topic.

Then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said at the time: “Aa dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. This is no little matter. It must be confronted and defeated.”

In a memo opposing the church’s motion for an injunction, the village argues, among other things, the court at this point lacks jurisdiction in the case because the church has not fully worked through the administrative remedies the village offers for resolving the situation.

Possibilities here might include appealing an initial planning board decision, and applying for a “use variance” for the property, the memo says, adding that “no final resolution has been made.”

The memo also points out that on March 4 the village issued an approval for the church to use the building as an office space and suggests that the church could hold services in the days ahead at buildings it owns near the village, or other possible locations.

“Simply stated,” the memo says, the church is arguing that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Equal Protection Clause the village “must allow houses of worship everywhere” regardless of the local zoning code.

The village’s court filing argues that it’s a misconception to say that because some types of assemblies are permitted in the C-1 commercial zone that religious assemblies must be as well.

Churches, it says, are not similarly situated to the allowable uses in the district, like restaurants, hotels and shops. “This Court should not compel the Village to usurp its Village Codes, especially prior to the parties having an opportunity to conduct discovery,” the memo adds.

The church counters in a filing last week that the village has submitted “over 300 pages” to the court without discussing “the central issues" in the case, which the filing says are “about the Church’s immediate civil and constitutional right to worship at its own property.”

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter with Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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