By Bob Smietana
Apparently, there is no room at the cross — at least not in Monroe, North Carolina.
City officials there told leaders of At The Cross Fellowship Baptist Church—a new church plant—that they could not hold services in a building they rented earlier this year.
Those services, according to the Charlotte Observer, would violate local zoning rules. So the city turned down the church’s application for an occupancy permit—even though a church had previously occupied the building.
“We have a lot of churches in the city of Monroe. We’re trying to make sure that these folks have the ability to be where they want to be,” City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan told the Observer.
In response, the church sued, saying the city’s action violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUPIA), a federal law that governs zoning law for churches.
The church already has one ally in the Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which filed suit on the church’s behalf. And the church might be eligible for legal aid from the federal government as well.
Officials at the Department of Justice announced a new “Place to Worship Initiative,” aimed at helping religious groups caught in zoning fights.
“The Constitution doesn’t just protect freedom to worship in private—it protects the public exercise of religious belief, including where people worship together,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement announcing the program.
Sessions said the initiative will help the DOJ will raise awareness about the rights of religious groups. The department will also file more suits on behalf of religious groups.
Zoning laws have often been used to discriminate against churches and other religious groups in recent years, Emma Green of The Atlantic reported last fall.
RLUPIA, which became law in 2000, was supposed to make it easier for churches and other houses of worship, said Green.
Things haven’t quite worked out that way.
“At the time, everyone cheered a rare moment of legislative success. In practice, though, few congregations have the time, knowledge, money, or energy to pursue the legal process set up by RLUIPA, leaving many in a desperate limbo with no place to pray,” she wrote.
Zoning and property disputes have become one of the most common ways for a church to end up in court, according to Church Tax & Law.
In the case of At The Cross church, the city of Monroe recently updated its zoning rules, which affected the building that the church leased.
Those new rules would permit “libraries, museums, and other nonprofit use of the same space,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley in a statement. But a church is not allowed.
“The government can’t discriminate against churches simply because they are religious,” said Stanley. “Zoning laws like Monroe’s are unconstitutional and violate federal law.”
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.