Court Addressed Zoning Restrictions on Church Construction in Residential Areas

A local Jehovah's Witnesses congregation purchased a 59-acre tract and applied for approval to construct

A local Jehovah's Witnesses congregation purchased a 59-acre tract and applied for approval to construct a 1500-seat hall in a rural township having a population of 1200. Churches were permitted uses in the township at the time of the application. However, while the application was pending, the township amended its zoning ordinance by placing the entire 59-acre tract in an "R-2" zone and then excluding churches as a permitted use in such zones.

The congregation sued, claiming that the zoning amendments were "arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory, and unlawful," and that they constituted "unlawful discrimination directed against the religious beliefs" of Jehovah's Witnesses and that they violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. A trial court agreed, ruling that "the total exclusion of churches and places of worship from residential districts violates the guaranty of freedom of religion as provided for by the New Jersey Constitution."

However, a state appeals court recently reversed this ruling on the ground that it was not supported by sufficient evidence. The appeals court, noting that "the exclusion of churches from residential districts … [is] one of the most common church-zoning issues facing the courts," concluded that "there is one common theme in the cases and academic comment—the court must make a thorough exploration and a careful evaluation of the facts bearing on the competing religious and governmental interests."

Facts that must be considered in such a determination include: (1) whether the activity allegedly burdened by the zoning ordinance is in fact religious; (2) whether the zoning ordinance imposes a significant burden on religious practice; (3) what alternative locations are reasonably available to the religious organization and what zoning alternatives are available to reasonably accommodate the organization; and (4) what interest does the government have in establishing and maintaining the zoning plan. With respect to the last factor, the court noted that "there is a substantial difference between a church conducted in the humble residence of its minister and … plopping down Canterbury Cathedral in the middle of bucolic Somerset County …."

Since the trial court had evaluated none of these factors in reaching its decision, the appeals court remanded the case back for further review. Jehovah's Witnesses Assembly Hall v. Woolwich Township, 537 A.2d 1336 (N.J. Super. 1988)

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