As a construction guy for over 46 years, I have been involved in many new construction, expansion and renovation projects of religious buildings and I am still surprised at the actions taken by zoning, planning and building departments on the use—and change of use—of property, especially when it comes to churches, houses of worship or the sites of their religious community work.
I recently came across an article in The Atlantic that shocked the heck out of me about a pastor who was pretty much blocked by the government from being able to obtain and use a bigger building to support his church’s expansion. I have had to handle nerve-racking situations before but nothing close to what this article reports.
I have experienced things like a battle between the city government and a house of worship that lasted for seven months and when it did get resolved it was clear that there was continued protest from the government.
Or, I saw a church actually prevented from buying a piece of property for its expansion and the city council fought it because, according to them, that property was to be purchased by the city for redevelopment in an attempt to attract more tourists to the downtown core. To this day, the property is still undeveloped.
A pastor trying to find a new location for his church is doomed because somehow the government will and can have “compelling governmental interest” to prevent him from doing so.
I was involved with helping a Baptist church get approval through the city to add a porte-cochère so that elderly parishioners could be out of the sun or rain when coming to services. It was a battle that lasted almost two years, the church had to hire a law firm at great expense but finally won. The planning board gave them more grief by not accepting their designs three times. This cost even more money for architects and engineers until the plans were finally accepted.
This situation has gotten so bad that there are now law firms that specialize in defending churches’ rights against suppressive government zoning boards, and these law firms make enough to stay in business just combating government suppression of religion.
Which brings me to the Constitution. The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
But the federal government itself often isn’t following the Constitution and Bill of Rights in this arena. In 1993 it passed a law called The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which states: The RFRA prohibits the “Government from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability” unless the government “demonstrates that application of the burden to the person—(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
This act plainly and explicitly gives the right to the government to predetermine any legal battle with regards to religious activity and any person’s involvement therein, and is therefore unconstitutional. A pastor trying to find a new location for his church is doomed because somehow the government (its zoning, planning and building departments) will and can have “compelling governmental interest” to prevent him from doing so.
Many forms of government have evolved, and, over time, these have often moved further from the protection of the people and closer to the serving of those in power and greater government control.
But wait! There is other news. In 1997, the United States Supreme Court held the RFRA to be unconstitutional as applied to state and local governments, so they passed another law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 1997 (RLUIPA) which prohibits the imposition of burdens on the ability of prisoners to worship as they please and gives churches and other religious institutions a way to avoid burdensome zoning law restrictions on their property use. It also defines the term “religious exercise” to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” The RLUIPA was signed into law in 2000.
Now, as written, RLUIPA’s general rule with regards to land use of religious facilities provides that: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government can demonstrate that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly or institution is 1) in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” Well, dang! There it is again. So what the heck is happening here?
Laws, in earlier times, were born out of the morals of people in a community. People saw a moral violation recurring against individuals and/or the community, so they banded together and made a law which prevented that immoral act from being committed without punishment. This is justice, which simply means the society protecting itself and its ethical members from the deviant acts of the immoral. The people elected a person or group of people to be entrusted with upholding the law and administering the punishment to those in violation of it. In this way, no matter how crude, “government” was born.
Since those early days, many forms of government have evolved, and, over time, these have often moved further from the protection of the people and closer to the serving of those in power and greater government control of the people. Suffice it to say that most forms of government are their own special interest groups and definitely not “for the people.”
Our Founding Fathers knew this. They also knew that unless a stringent, yet liberal, set of guidelines was printed, ratified and enacted for the government of the New World, that there would be those who would wreak havoc on this new frontier. This was their exact reasoning for creating the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
To say that all the work, foresight and wisdom put in place by our Founding Fathers is being slowly dismantled is a gross understatement. Laws are no longer born out of the morals of the people or society. They are born out of precedent in a court room. Because Bob’s lawyer beat the system and got him off of the murder charge on a technical point, a murderer is let loose in the community. This is not laws protecting and serving the people nor is it justice nor is it proper governmental action to let this occur in direct violation of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights AND the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet it happens every day.
If “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…,” then why do we have the passage of laws like The Religious Freedom Restoration Act or the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act? Making ANY law respecting an establishment of religion is a direct violation of the First Amendment, being carried out by the very same government officials who are supposed to ensure this doesn’t happen!
What started out as protection of religion from the government has been turned into governmental control of religion by way of laws it was never supposed to create.
And so it goes. The government, through its own actions, invites the legal case of the bigot, the hatemonger, the prejudiced and the criminal into the system not only to play the game and set the precedent, but also to preside over it.
The majority of citizens govern themselves through their own character, integrity, personal ethics and faith. They are good people who place a high value on religious or moral conviction and freedom for all. These people believe in helping others and moving toward a better world.
Contrary to popular belief, these people represent the majority of the civilization. If they didn’t, we would not all still be here. Of this I am sure.
The rest make life a bit dangerous for the majority out of their own lack of ethics, integrity or moral character and use the system of government as a shoulder to cry on or a source of handouts or protection for their criminal acts. These people live mostly in fear of the environment around them which makes them tend to strike back against it in some way or another.
This minority of people actively work to undermine any goodness in the world and can become either government officials or leaders of a drug cartel. It makes no difference really. The leader of a drug cartel destroys lives one person at a time. A government destroys the complete fabric of society through its dismantling of human rights and its people’s lives, money, property, morals, values and hope for the future.
All of which is to say government can be—and often is—corrupted. And what started out as protection of religion from the government has been turned into governmental control of religion by way of laws it was never supposed to create.
I like to think we live in a damn good country. And even if flawed a bit, not too bad a structure of government. I believe the U.S. sets an example for the rest of the countries of Earth to follow and mimic. So if we show that a country can properly govern itself and its people can be happy and free then that is what will be followed and mimicked. How cool would that be?
But if the erosion of the tenets which have kept us in union thus far is allowed to continue, we will all perish—sooner rather than later.
I am asking that you do whatever you can to help reverse the decline of this civilization. I am there with you, doing it too.