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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

First Amendment Center Defends Religious Exemptions In Response to NY Times

Over at the First Amendment Center, Charles Haynes responds to the recent NY Times series that expressed concern about the legitimacy of religious exemptions from regulatory restrictions. Here is a key excerpt:

The village of Suffern, N.Y., treats Orthodox Jews just like everyone else — and that’s why it’s being sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for religious discrimination.

Equal treatment, it turns out, sometimes keeps the faithful from practicing their faith.

Orthodox Jews, for example, can’t drive on the Sabbath or other holy days. So a Jewish service agency in Suffern built a “Shabbos House” across from the hospital, giving believers a place to stay while visiting patients (the nearest hotel is more than three miles away).

But since the Shabbos House is in an area zoned for single-family homes, the Jewish group requested — and was denied — a zoning variance. Now both the Jewish agency and the federal government have filed suit, claiming the denial unlawfully burdens the Jewish community’s free exercise of religion.

The Suffern conflict is one of many similar disputes across the country. Last month, for example, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in a case involving the Okemos Christian Center. The church wants to build a larger structure to hold an expanding congregation, but it can’t because of zoning restrictions in Meridian Charter Township, Mich. Although the church prevailed in a lower court, the town appealed the decision.

Cases like these are part of a growing national debate over religious exemptions to laws and regulations concerning everything from zoning to taxes. What critics (including many local officials) disparagingly call “special treatment,” religious groups describe as needed protections for religious freedom.

Although the Times editors believe that the NYT "series showed that the wall between church and state is being replaced by a platform that raises religious organizations to a higher legal plane than their secular counterparts," religious exemptions from restrictive laws actually protect the wall between church and state by ensuring that the state cannot breach the wall to impose substantial burdens on religious freedom. As Haynes puts it, the Times and other critics may call it "special treatment," but "our Framers called it religious freedom."

With Ben's kind permission, I will be serving as a kind of roving religious land use reporter for PropertyProf for the foreseeable future. I look forward to this assigment.

Rick Duncan

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