Opinion: Canton church controversy about value and civil rights, says SLU professor
Monday, November 12, 2018 - 11:35 am

We need to call attention to important legal and civil rights issues with controversy brewing in Canton over a church (CFC-Canton) purchasing 25 Court Street (The Club). Court rulings on 1st Amendment rights, and federal law passed to help enforce those rights, imply in a straight-forward way that certain parts of Canton’s zoning laws concerning “churches” are inadvertently illegal.

Since 25 Court Street is in the C-1 commercial zone, the local code may implicitly allow churches. 1) “Fraternal/social clubs/education/charitable or philanthropic” are explicitly allowed uses in C-1. Also allows for similar uses by special exemption. 2) As CFC points out, a church has ALL those uses. The only difference is that a church does those uses, or activities, with a religious purpose or motive. That is, the allowed uses are also religious activities. The implication is that either a church’s religious activities are allowed in C-1 or these activities are similar uses allowed by special exemption.

However, federal law comes into play as well. “The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations. The law was passed unanimously by Congress in 2000, after hearings in which Congress found that houses of worship, particularly those of minority religions and start-up churches, were disproportionately affected, and in fact often were actively discriminated against, by local land use decisions. Congress also found that, as a whole, religious institutions were treated worse than comparable secular institutions. Congress further found that zoning authorities frequently were placing excessive burdens on the ability of congregations to exercise their faiths in violation of the Constitution” (“A Guide to Federal Religious Land Use Protections”).

Federal law takes precedence and REQUIRES allowing CFC to operate in C-1. RLUIPA states, “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.” In short, religious activities use can’t be discriminated against. To top it off, RLUIPA also states that similar uses by religious institutions cannot be denied.

Therefore the village must allow CFC to operate in C-1 to avoid violating federal law and violating 1st Amendment rights. Zoning changes, variances, lot size, or on-site parking merely distract from the reality that federal law takes precedent over local regulations.

Please confirm the above. Just go online, google rluipa guide, and find “A Guide to Federal Religious Land Use Protections.”

In my opinion, the controversy essentially about the 1st Amendment, it is about upholding Constitutionally-guaranteed civil rights. It is about how the people of Canton value the liberties embodied in the Bill of Rights.

Robert A. Blewett

St. Lawrence University economics professor