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Removing Obstacles to Religious Buildings

Some neighborhoods resist construction, but a new law would make it harder to use zoning laws to keep worshipers from residential areas.

August 05, 2000|MARGARET RAMIREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When King Fahd of Saudi Arabia handed a local Muslim organization an $8.1-million check to build a mosque in Culver City, organizers thought their troubles were over.

In reality, problems were about to begin.

Muslim leaders became ensnared in a marathon dispute with city officials and homeowners who objected to the mosque, said Usman Madha, community liaison for the mosque. First there were complaints that increased traffic would plague the residential area. Then there were concerns about the Islamic architecture and whether lavish marble would create a glare during the daytime.

And what about that minaret? some asked. Would it be appropriate to have that tower lighted at night?

The mosque eventually opened: It celebrates its one-year anniversary this month and relations with neighbors have been good, Madha said. But the opening came only after the mosque made a number of concessions, including a 370-person limit on the number of worshipers at any one time.

The problems the mosque faced are not uncommon. In the past 10 years, zoning conflicts involving houses of worship have become contentious across Southern California.

"As religious communities, we do encounter situations, not imposed by cities themselves but by people who reside in the area. They have certain prejudices and they bring these issues up to give the city a headache," Madha said.

Now, religious communities are likely to get more clout for handling such situations. A bill that passed both houses of Congress unanimously last week would make it more difficult for cities to use zoning laws to keep churches, temples and mosques out of their neighborhoods. President Clinton is expected to sign it into law.

Another portion of the bill seeks to ensure that people in institutions, such as mental hospitals and prisons, can freely practice their faith as long as it does not undermine security, discipline or order in their institutions.

Rep. Charles T. Canady (R-Fla.), the chief House sponsor of the bill, said some city officials would deliberately exclude all new churches from an entire city. Other cities have refused to permit churches to use existing buildings that nonreligious groups previously used and still others intentionally change zoning rules to exclude churches.

Under the new bill, local zoning and land use regulations would not be allowed to "place a substantial burden on the exercise of religion" unless municipal officials could demonstrate a "compelling government reason" to justify their actions.

The law "will give leverage to religious groups which we never had before," Madha said.

His words were echoed by Phil Baum, president of the American Jewish Congress. The new law "provides important protection for the right to practice religion free of unjustifiable governmental interference," Baum said in a statement. "It is a first step to restoring religious liberty to its pride of place."

A coalition of more than 60 religious and legal advocacy groups, both liberal and conservative, banded together in support of the bill. Supporters included the American Jewish Congress, the National Assn. of Evangelicals, the Christian Legal Society, the Baptist Joint Committee, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Family Research Council, People for the American Way, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church.

Supporters of the bill charged that zoning officials often interfere with religious practice in ways that are discriminatory.

The new bill is designed to replace an earlier law, signed by Clinton in 1993, called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The Supreme Court struck that act down in 1997, saying that it went too far in siding with churches against municipal officials. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is an attempt to answer that decision.

Across Southern California, there have been numerous controversies:

* Last month, Irvine residents became upset when University Synagogue announced plans to convert an ice skating rink into a temple. Protesters circulated petitions that displayed the words "University Synagogue" with a circle and slash through them and called on the City Council to rezone the property to prohibit churches.

* In July 1999, Shalom Alliance Fellowship, a small Christian congregation of Filipino and Chinese immigrants, was ousted from its storefront church in Fountain Valley because the location was in a commercial zone where churches are prohibited. The congregation filed suit, saying the city followed discriminatory policies that allowed secular groups to operate in commercial zones, but not churches. In response, the city ended its ban on churches.

* In March 1999, Morning Star Christian Church filed suit against Rolling Hills Estates after the city denied the group permission to operate in a vacant movie theater and banned churches in commercial zones.

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