Zoning Religion

Zoning religion.(dispute over proposed construction of church in Bernards Township, New Jersey)
Issue: Oct 6, 1999

RALPH AND Cindy Rizzo found the perfect home last year, a circa-1900 farmhouse on four acres in New Jersey's Bernards Township. It has a million-dollar view across a pristine meadow. Peter Pendell, senior pastor of the Millington Baptist Church, also found the perfect home for his flock, a large tract on which to build a church, classrooms, a multipurpose room and offices he needs to accommodate a growing congregation.

But Pendell's perfect home would rise smack dab in the middle of Rizzo's million-dollar view. So Rizzo and many of his neighbors, unhappy about the proposed 67,000-square-foot facility, hired a lawyer to fight it.

The battle being played out before the local planning board in this township 25 miles or so west of Newark illustrates what some see as a long-simmering tension between religious freedom and control over local growth. It's a battle being fought across the country. Recently, for example, a court in Boston heard arguments in one of two lawsuits challenging plans of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) to build a new temple that residents said would have the effect of lowering the neighborhood's property values.

"What you're experiencing is similar to what's going on with much greater frequency throughout the nation as we've become a little more protective of our privacy and a little less respectful of the role churches play in our communities," said Oliver Thomas, special counsel to the National Council of Churches.

Thomas went on to say that people gave churches and community organizations more deference in the past, but financial and sexual scandals involving local churches and more widely known televangelists have hurt organized religion's image.

Melissa Rogers of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., pointed out that churches are increasingly facing problems in their dealings with the government entities that control growth. "As zoning boards have gotten more and more power, churches and zoning boards have been butting heads more often," Rogers said.

Up and down Bernards Township's Mine Brook and Annin roads, neighbors whose properties border the proposed new home of the church have posted red-and-white "Save Mine Brook Road" signs declaring their opposition. "Yes, I was surprised," Pendell said of the reaction his planned church has generated. "One reason the land was attractive to us was that we thought there would be no opposition. It's such a large piece of land, we thought we could go there and use just 7 percent of it, and we didn't think anyone would have an objection to that."

But Peter Simmons, a professor at Rutgers School of Law, is not surprised that a proposed church would cause such wrath. "I think for a long time churches have been unpopular with many residential communities, in part because they're tax-exempt," Simmons said. "They're unpopular with immediate neighbors because people come to church and park on the street in front of your house. They are often more heterogeneous than the community in which they're located, so you may have churches that have black and white parishioners in a white community that may not want to see them coming in."

Rizzo voiced concern about the sheer size of the project. He said he was told when he bought his house that a church might someday be built on the open land next to him, but he was assured that it would be a small country church. "I have nothing against the church, or any church anywhere," Rizzo said. "But this is 67,000 square feet. The traffic is already backed up at Liberty Corner all the time. I guess we're looking for them to scale it down a little."

On August 3 Millington Baptist won a significant round in its dispute with area residents who had formed a homeowners association with more than 100 families to oppose the church. The Bernards Township planning board voted 5-4 to grant preliminary approval to the church's plans for the site. The neighbors say that legally the planning board shouldn't have been allowed to review the application--in part, they argue, because the church is proposing multiple primary uses for the 87-acre parcel, which makes it a matter for the township zoning board.

The homeowners have formally challenged the board's right to make the decision and also have the option of filing suit against the city within 45 days of September 16. "Nobody likes to object to a church," Glen Kienz, attorney for the Mine Brook Road residents, told the Bernardsville News. "The problem is, what we're dealing with here is not a little church in the wilderness. It's an enormous facility."

The plans filed by the church call for an L-shaped building, with parking for up to 500 cars. The building would house a sanctuary for worship services and a large multipurpose hall, which could be used for performances, basketball games and aerobics classes. There would be a kitchen, offices and 21 classrooms, which Pendell said are intended to be used for Bible study and Sunday school. "Those who oppose us think we're going to start a parochial school there," Pendell said. "We're not even talking about that. We've got our hands full with paying for a new building."

Joan Rochat is skeptical. She and her husband, Tom, recently bought a farmhouse on the Far Hills side of Mine Brook Road that has been in her husband's family for generations. "We're almost certain there will be a grammar school there someday," she said. "Twenty-one classrooms they say will only be used for Sunday school? I'm sorry, we don't believe those classrooms will sit empty during the week for very long. That, to me, speaks for itself."

The church has countered such arguments by bringing in Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest and former congressman who is now a professor of law at Georgetown University and a specialist in church-state legal issues. He contended that the planning board does have jurisdiction. And according to Drinan, all the various uses the church is proposing--counseling, Bible study, Sunday school, even the fitness classes--are all just ancillary elements of its single primary purpose: religious worship.

Wesley Neff, a spokesman for the neighbors, argued that such a reading of the law opens the door for the church to do almost anything, from holding aerobics classes to catering events. "It's our contention that the definition of ancillary uses has been so broadened, anything they can think of would be an ancillary use," Neff said.

Rogers of the Baptist Joint Committee argued that trying to define what constitutes a given religion's worship is a road no government entity should start down. "For a secular authority to try to tell people what is or is not part of our worship experience is very intrusive and offensive. It's a perilous thing to make these determinations from outside."

The NCC's Thomas maintained that ancillary activities are an important part of any church's mission. "The courts have a pretty good history of recognizing that what is and is not a legitimate ministry of the church is up to the church," he said. "Civil magistrates are really not competent to decide what is a legitimate function. The social ministries are as central to [churches'] religious mission as anything that they do.'"

Drinan and Edward McKenzie, a lawyer representing the church, also point out that a Roman Catholic church, St. James, sought and received permission to expand its sanctuary and school in Bernards Township, giving its parishioners a larger facility (115,000 square feet) on a smaller lot (18 acres). "There is no compelling or overriding interest on the part of the township to deny the people of this church their rights," Drinan said. "I said if they deny this to the Baptist church, it's a denial of equal protection." Drinan noted that groups like the National Council of Churches may ultimately become involved if they perceive religious discrimination.--RNS

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