The Common Good
May-June 1998

Keeping Service in the Zone

by Carol Fennelly | May-June 1998

An effort to protect churches' public ministries.

With massive cuts to federal and local programs for poor people, the faith community is repeatedly named as the institution to fill the gaps in the shredded social safety net. Yet while there is an increased willingness by the religious community to do even more than it already does to help the poor, barriers are often placed in the way.

Like many cities in the United States, Washington, D.C., has experienced open hostility between some churches and civic associations. Tension arises as the religious groups have fed, clothed, and cared for the poorest and most disenfranchised in the community—work the churches see as the calling of their faith, but opponents see as a threat to their neighborhoods.

In the District, these disputes have sometimes ended up in court with the city losing and the projects in some modified version going forward anyway—but not before time and money are wasted by both the religious groups and the D.C. government. In one case neighbors were up in arms about a church that served breakfast to hungry people—a ministry the church had done for years. The Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA) found that the program was not integral to the church’s mission and ruled against it. A federal court judge later overruled that decision.

In Washington, one problem is that current laws are ambiguous and lack clear definitions about what constitutes religious use of a facility. In addition, the BZA has done things such as establish an "overlay district" in an upscale neighborhood that restricted places of worship from locating or expanding. The "overlay district" also defined housing for people with disabilities as "non-residential" and prevented the development of new projects.

IN 1993, IN RESPONSE to the increasingly successful efforts to stop their work, the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington, the D.C. Council of Churches, and other religious groups formed "The Religious Freedom Roundtable" to discuss these issues. Out of that group came the Campaign for New Community. In 1994, the group successfully lobbied the D.C. City Council to amend the city’s Comprehensive Plan so that the BZA would be required to change its regulations to permit service activities except when the District can demonstrate a compelling government interest to the contrary.

With the active pro bono support and membership of one of Washington’s most powerful downtown law firms, the Campaign for New Community then wrote new regulations and submitted them to the zoning board to address both the fair housing issues raised by the "overlay district" and the religious freedom issues raised by other restrictive zoning regulations. To date the fair housing portion is moving through the proper process, but the BZA has ignored both the council mandate and the requests of the faith community to move on the religious freedom portion.

Attorneys for the Campaign for New Community believe they have three things working for them in their continuing efforts to move the zoning board. First, the mandate of the amended Comprehensive Plan—the law of the District of Columbia—requires the Board to act. Second, the Campaign for New Community believes the ministries that are directly threatened by the zoning board’s inaction are protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Finally, even though the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was struck down in 1997, the Supreme Court made it clear that local laws that protect religious freedom are appropriate and legal.

Many faith-based groups across the nation are frustrated at the dual messages they are getting from government. On one hand they are called on to do more and more to meet the needs of those left behind by changing social policy. On the other, the Supreme Court, local zoning commissions, and communities are obstructing efforts by religious groups to respond to both the message of the gospel and the call of new social realities.

The Campaign for New Community has brought together a strong group of religious activists, and coupled that with some powerful legal muscle to challenge effectively the fears and barriers placed before them. As the group’s lead attorney puts it, "The churches are being called on to do much of the job that government has done. Now government needs to get out of the way and let us do it."

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