A recent article in the Wall Street Journal discusses the difficulties that some religious congregations face when meeting in residential homes.(1) Some examples include:
- A Christian Bible study group was “fined $300 for violating a city ordinance that prohibits groups of three or more people from gathering without a permit.”
- “In 2006, a synagogue sued and eventually settled with Hollywood, Fla., after the city initially denied its application for a zoning permit to operate in two residential homes.”
- “In 2009, San Diego County officials issued a warning (which they later withdrew) to a couple for hosting a weekly Bible study in their home without a permit.”
Under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a government may not enact or enforce a land use regulation in a way that imposes a substantial burden on a religious assembly, unless it is done through the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.(2) Nevertheless, the article points out that some smaller religious groups have had trouble getting land-use accommodations.
On a related note, last week, a New Jersey appellate court issued its decision in Englishtown Synagogue, Inc. v. Township of West Orange (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div., Dec. 6, 2011).
In that case, a synagogue purchased a building in which to hold its services, and the building was located on residential-zoned property. It took nearly three years for the synagogue to get a permit to operate a house of worship on the property. Even after the permit was granted, the synagogue was denied a property tax exemption for the time preceding the issuance of the zoning permit.
The synagogue brought its tax exemption claim to court and, though it lost in the lower court, was successful on appeal. The appellate court held that under New Jersey law, “the statutory criteria for tax exemption for a religious organization do not include a requirement that the property comply with zoning requirements.” Thus, the court granted the tax exemption. Despite the happy ending for Englishtown Synagogue, this case illustrates how difficult in can be to make a synagogue in a house.