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Despite such instinctive efforts on the parts of governing bodies to avoid the appearance of intolerance, I have absolutely no doubt that prejudice is a substantial factor in a large number of cases, particularly where smaller or less popular groups are involved
Strong evidence for this conclusion is provided by a study I prepared with colleagues from the B.Y.U. Law School and at the law firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt in January, 1997. A copy of the study is attached as an appendix to my statement. Essentially, the study reviewed all the reported cases we were able to identify involving free exercise challenges to land use regulation. If anything, it seems reasonable to assume that these cases significantly understate the number of situations in which religious groups believe that their religious rights are being violated. A variety of practical disincentives ranging from the need to have good working relationships with local officials and neighbors, to religiously based impulses to go the second mile, to the sheer cost of litigation, to the availability of other sites and the unattractiveness of settling among manifestly prejudiced neighbors all operate to deter religious groups from over-litigating their claims.
Cases were classified into two broad categories, essentially to see if there are sig. nificant differences between new construction situations ("location cases) and cases dealing with whether an accessory use (such as a homeless shelter or soup kitchen) may be allowed at the site of an existing church ("accessory use cases). The cases were also classified by denomination, to the extent that is possible based on case name or other information in the body of the decision. Information on size of de nomination was based on data from a massive study that provides the best available estimates of church affiliation based on self-described affiliation
With this data in hand, we proceeded to compare the treatment received by smaller religious groups (those with 1.5% of the population or less) with that received by larger groups. 13 If land use laws were being applied in a neutral fashion, one would expect roughly equal treatment. But in fact, the situation is quite different. Minority religions representing less than 9% of the population were involved in over 49% of the cases regarding the right to locate religious buildings at a particular site, and in over 33% of the cases seeking approval of accessory uses. The disproportion ate burden becomes even more distressing if one takes into account smaller non-denominational or other unclassified groups. If these are counted, over 68% of reported location cases, and over 50% of accessory use cases, involve smaller religious groups.
While a study of this type can at best give a rough picture of what is happening, the conclusion seems inescapable that illicit motivationis affecting disputes in the land use area. Such illicit motivation may be present either in the form of prejudice against unpopular or less known groups, or in the form of undue favoring of more powerful groups, or most likely, both. There may of course be other factors that explain some of the disparity, but the differences are so staggering that it is virtually impossible to imagine that religious discrimination is not playing a significant role.
Significantly, the judicial success rate for small religious groups and larger groups is essentially the same. The smaller groups won approximately 66% of the cases in which they were involved, whereas larger religious groups won approximately 65% of the cases in which they figured. These figures suggest that judicial review has on balance tended to help smaller religious groups. At the same time, they indicate that judicial decisions tend to be more impartial across groups, and that there is no reason to think the high proportion of disputes involving smaller religious groups reflects higher levels of ungrounded claims.
The magnitude of the problem is reinforced when one considers that the reported cases are only the tip of the iceberg, since for the reasons discussed above, most religious groups bend over backwards to avoid conflicts with future neighbors and city officials they must deal with on a continuing basis. That is, religious groups are much more likely to give up on claims they may bebieve are valid in the interest of social peace than they are to litigate questionable claims aggressively. If anything, then, the study, with whatever unavoidable imperfections it may have, significantly understates the problems religious groups face.
Note that while the problems for smaller religious groups are particularly acute, the burdens faced by larger groups are not insignificant. A recent survey commissioned by the Presbyterian Church USA-a mainline denomination by anyone's definition—noted that 23% of its congregations had needed to obtain some sort of land use permit since January 1, 1992. Significant conflicts with city county staff, neighbors, commission members, or others were encountered with respect to 10% of the
13 Technically, all religions in the United States are "minority religions" in the sense that their members constitute less than 50% of the population. It turns out that those with 1.5% of the population or more tend to include "mainline groups, and that the less popular groups all fall below the 1.5% line.
land use approvals thus needed, although only 1% of the approvals needed have thus far been denied (with 4% remaining unresolved).14
The patterns of discrimination suggested by the foregoing statistics are all too familiar to those working in the religious land use area. In case after case, the plaintiff is a religious group that has obtained options on lot after lot, or has actually purchased a succession of lots, often after preliminary consultations with city officials, only to have a zoning request, a conditional use permit, a variance, or some other land use approval denied as opposition from local citizens climbs. Such denials are often issued even though similar religious uses from larger religious groups have been approved. This is exactly what happened when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought a zoning change for a temple site in Forest Hills Tennessee, as described in detail by Von Keetch in an earlier Congressional hearing held on March 26, 1998.15 Such denials are also a familiar litany in many cases involving Jehovah's Witnesses. And they are an even greater problem for newer or non-Christian religious groups.
The facts of discrimination were particularly blatant in Islamic Center of Mississippi, Inc. v. City of Starkville, 840 F.2d 293 (5th Cir. 1988). A Muslim group that served primarily students at the University of Mississippi in Starkville sought necessary approvals for a place of worship near campus. Unfortunately, Starkville's zoning ordinance prohibited the use of buildings as churches in all the areas within the city limits that were near campus, and there was no place in the city in which worship facilities were permitted as of right. The Islamic Center considered three successive lots as possible worship sites, but each time was told by the City's building codes official that the sites could not be approved, either because of inadequate parking, heavy traffic on an adjacent street, or the risk of traffic congestion. The leaders then met with the building code official, and asked “exactly where we can locate,” and were told that a fourth location would be excellent, if sufficient parking was provided. The representatives of the Center then bought the property, and provided 18 on-site parking spaces. The planning commission recommended approval. Ultimately, however, the use had to be approved by the Board of Aldermen, and despite recommendations of approval from staff, the Board denied the approval when a neighbor claimed that the use would cause "congestion, parking, and traffic problems." The Board thereupon denied the exception to the zoning ordinance that was sought. Subsequently some city officials inspected the building for conformity with fire and electrical requirements, and approved its conformity for worship. But several months later, in response to complaints about worship activities, the City ordered the Islamic Center to stop holding worship services at its building. What made this whole course of action particularly galling was that there was a residence next door that was used as a worship center for Pentecostal Christians. This group caused more noise, provided less parking and in general seemed less deserving of a zoning exception than Islamic Center. Five more churches were located within a quarter mile of the Center. The District Court, after holding that “congregational prayer for Muslims is desirable, but not mandatory," and that the “Starkville city ordinance does not preclude students from purchasing cars and driving to a worship site located (outside Starkville's city limits),” concluded that
[s]tanding alone, the denial of the . . . [Center's] zoning application is not enough upon which to base an inference of discrimination. ... The actions of the Board were supported by valid traffic considerations, and there is no evidence to suggest that it improperly considered plaintiffs' religion in reaching its
decision. Therefore, it held, the zoning ordinance did not violate the Islamic student's rights to free exercise of religion or substantive due process. 16
Fortunately, the Circuit Court reversed, applying a heightened scrutiny test to reject the District Court's wooden deference to blatantly discriminatory state action and its decision that Starkville's zoning ordinance did not burden the Islamic students' free exercise rights. The Fifth Circuit Court rightly compared the comments about how poor Islamic students could simply buy cars to drive to church across town or outside the city limits to “Anatole France's comment on the majestic equality of the law that forbids all men, the rich as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges. ..." 17
The difficulty is that in far too many cases, as noted in the Schwab case quoted above, land use decisions are wrapped in neutral sounding language about parking,
14 Supplement to the Session Annual Statistical Report: End of Year 1997, Question 7–8.
setbacks, traffic impacts, and the like, which may constitute substantial and tangible harm to surrounding property owners, but in too many cases merely serves as an empty verbal mask hiding illicit discriminatory conduct aimed at the exercise of religion. Thus, lack of parking facilities that results in constant overparking of a narrow street, disrupting traffic and blocking neighboring driveways may constitute a genuine problem, but it does not justify excluding a religious use from an area if adequate on-site parking is provided (as was the case in Islamic Center) or if the religious use is needed at the location in question precisely because of religious requirements that participants must walk to the service. 18 References to increased traffic flows may constitute a genuine risk to safety, or they may simply reflect moderate increases as likely to result without the religious use. Rigid insistence on setback or bulk requirements may be unnecessary, or may reflect an aesthetic concern that should give way to weightier religious freedom concerns. Building code problems may constitute substantial health and safety risks, or they may relate to matters that are routinely waived in a community.
The point is that land use provisions, while often assumed to be part of general and neutral regulatory schemes, characteristically involve permit schemes analogous to those struck down in Cantwell v. Connecticut, 19 which granted local officials essentially standardless discretion to determine whether religious practices may go forward. Land use decisions are often delivered in conclusory language that can mask behind-the-scenes prejudice. Constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion are of little practical value if they permit control of the meeting place of a church to pass from its members to government outsiders without any examination of the government's asserted need for such control. Yet unless the goals of land use authorities are tested against more searching scrutiny than that provided by standards of neutrality and general applicability, agency officials have no occasion and no motivation to consider and weigh their regulatory objectives against the substantial burdens these may impose on the free exercise of religion. As the Supreme Court noted in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah,20 "The Free Exercise Clause protects against governmental hostility which is masked as well as overt. "The Court must survey meticulously the circumstances of governmental categories to eliminate, as it were, religious gerrymanders.'»
Significantly, the Supreme Court's decision in Smith jettisons strict scrutiny only as to neutral and generally applicable laws. As was clear even before Smith made the fact relevant, "[z]oning laws are peculiar in that they are not really laws of general applicability but are, rather, linked to individual properties." 21 Some courts have built on this fact to hold that strict scrutiny continues to apply in the land use area as a reasonable construction of language in the Smith decision explicitly designed to avoid overturning Sherbert and its progeny. Thus, in First Covenant Church v. Seattle,22 the Washington Supreme Court found that a landmark designating ordinance was not general, because its criteria for application necessitated individual evaluations of each potential landmark property and was not neutral because of an exception for liturgy-based structural changes, 23 and hence that the challenged ordinance failed under strict scrutiny. The court in First United Methodist Church of Seattle v. Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board,24 reached a similar conclusion, holding that while a particular church could be landmarked, it would violate the free exercise clause to allow restrictive features of the landmarking ordinance to be enforced so long as the building remained devoted to religious uses. While all courts have not reached the same conclusion,25 Congress may legitimately exercise its power under Section 5 of the 14th Amendment to remedy violations and to assure protection of free exercise values that remain protected under the reasonable interpretation of Smith advanced by the Washington cases.
One of the major problems in the land use area is that the public officials charged with enforcing them are all too prone to undervalue the concrete needs of religious
18 Orthodox Minyan of Elkins Park v. Cheltenham Township Zoning Hearing Bd., 552 A.2d 772, 773 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1989)(“It is ironic that the Board denied a special exception to convert a property to religious use on the grounds of increasd traffic flow to a group whose religion prohibits them from driving automobiles during their day of worship”).
19 310 U.S. 296, 304_307 (1940).
20 508 U.S. 520, 534 (1993)(quoting Walz v. Tax Comm'n, 397 U.S. 664, 696 (1970)(Harlan, J. concurring)).
21 See Kenneth Pearlman, Zoning and the Location of Religioius Establishments, 31 Cath. Law. 314, 335 (1988).
22 120 Wash. 2d 203, 840 P.2d 174 (1992).
25 See, e.g., St. Bartholomew's Church v. New York, 914 F.2d 348 (2d Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 905 (1991)(sustaining a landmarking statute as a neutral and general law).
activity as opposed to the other planning and preservation values. In part this is a reflection of what I called “secular blindness” or “secular myopia” above, and in part, it is a natural corollary of the commitment of such officials to planning and preservation values that motivated them to assume planning or preservation responsibilities in their communities in the first place. In the preservation context, the historical value of churches is sometimes given priority over the practical needs of living religion. In the planning context, idealized notions of the aesthetics and logic of urban layout are given greater credence than the need to allow land uses that can accommodate the needs of religious groups who desire to locate in a community and that will be as workable for the religious community as for residential neighborhoods and other more powerful blocs of the citizenry. The underlying values involved cannot be adequately balanced if any land use regulations the relevant authorities happen to prefer are determined to be “neutral and general” laws virtually immune to any religious freedom challenge.
If courts are not authorized to invoke the kind of heightened scrutiny called for by the Religious Liberty Protection Act, it seems highly plausible to expect that the plight of minority religious groups documented above will further deteriorate, because courts will not be able to be as effective in rectifying the problems encountered by smaller groups as they have been in the past. In the absence of such heightened scrutiny, courts will have a much more difficult time unmasking discriminatory conduct and a much stricter obligation to be deferential to land use authorities. Ironically, this could lead to a situation in the future in which the disparity between reported land use cases of larger and smaller groups is reduced, not because the smaller groups believe their rights are being vindicated, but because they perceive the prospects of vindicating those claims in court are hopeless, and therefore cease bringing cases in the future that they might have pursued in the past.
The Religious Liberty Protection Act is well designed to remedy the types of problems identified by the analysis of reported land use cases submitted herewith, and made more concrete by consideration of the various cases discussed above. By focusing on laws which “substantially burden religious exercise", the Act avoids the risk of imposing unreasonable constraints on governmental action that might result if every type of state action that incidentally burdens religion could be challenged under the Act. At the same time, because "religious exercise” is defined to mean "an act or refusal to act that is substantially motivated by a religious belief, whether or not the act or refusal is compulsory or central to a larger system of religious belief,” it follows Smith in insisting that state agencies should not get into the business of assessing what is central to a religion. The insistence that land use authorities use the “least restrictive means” available to promote their policies is only reasonable: continuing to insist on a more burdensome course of action when a reasonable alternative is available transforms what may initially have been inadvertent discrimination into knowing and thus intentional imposition of an injury to religious sensitivities. Finally, the insistence on “substantial and tangible harm” provides a meaningful standard (and one that is as precise as the subject matter allows) for assuring that only genuinely significant land use concerns will be able to override religious liberty claims. Significantly, this standard does recognize that there are circumstances where land use regulations will be sufficiently significant to override religious concerns. Where a community can demonstrate "substantial and tangible harm," a community may enforce land use regulations that will substantially burden religious exercise. However, in accordance with prior law, a community may not totally deprive a religious community of "a reasonable location in the jurisdiction," and it may not deprive religious assemblies of equal access to areas where non-religious assemblies are permitted.
The highly individualized processes of land use regulation readily lend themselves to discrimination that is difficult or impossible to prove in individual cases, but which is in fact pervasive, as the study submitted herewith demonstrates. RLPA will help remedy this problem in part by adjusting burdens of proof. Moreover, the heightened scrutiny of land use regulation called for in the Act will be an important tool in helping to root out such discrimination. Congress has power under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to support remedial legislation of this type. Significantly, Sections 3(b)(1)(B) and (C) are sustainable for independent reasons. Section 3(b)(1)(B) codifies the rule that it is unconstitutional wholly to exclude First Amendment activity from a jurisdiction.26 If this principle were not sound, religious communities would be afforded less protection against land use authorities than adult theaters, bookstores, and other similar businesses. Section 3(b)(1)(C) codifies the rule that discrimination between different categories of speech, and particularly be
26 Schad v. Bourough of Mt. Ephraim, 452 U.S. 61 (1981).
Rev. Jím Queen October 7, 1992
amount if the case is aborted after it has commenced.
Please put this matter on a priority agenda for the Association, and let me know as soon as possible how you can participate. We would like to launch this action by November, Lord willing.
. Yours in Christ,
Mauck, Bellande, Baker
ohn W. Mauck
ce. Woodroe Claibarne