Court Ruled City’s Refusal to Permit an Islamic Center to Operate within City Limits Violated the Guaranty of Religious Freedom

A federal appeals court decision strongly supports the right of churches to locate in residential

A federal appeals court decision strongly supports the right of churches to locate in residential districts. The court ruled that a city's refusal to permit an Islamic center to operate within city limits near a university campus violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom.

A city zoning ordinance prohibited the use of any building as a church in all areas of the city near a university campus unless a special permit was obtained from the city council. Twenty-five churches were granted permits to operate in restricted areas. However, the Islamic center's request for a permit was denied. No reason was given for the denial, though a neighborhood spokesman expressed concern over "congestion, parking, and traffic problems."

The center sued the city, arguing that the city's action in banishing it from the restricted area near the university campus, while allowing 25 churches to meet in the same area, violated the right of Muslims to the free exercise of their religion. The city denied that the Muslims' rights were violated, since "they can establish a mosque … outside the city limits or buy cars and ride to more distant places within the city."

The federal appeals court observed that the city's suggestion was "reminiscent of Anatole France's comment on the majestic equality of the law that forbids all men, the rich as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread." The court further observed that "laws that make churches accessible only to those affluent enough to travel by private automobile obviously burden the free exercise of religion by the poor." And, while "the constitution does not forbid all governmental regulation that imposes an incidental burden on worship by making the free exercise of religion more difficult or more expensive," once it is established that a governmental action burdens religious exercise, "the government must offer evidence of an overriding interest" to justify its action.

In this case, however, the city "advanced no rational basis other than the neigborhood opposition to show why the [permit] granted all other religious centers was denied the Islamic center …. [N]eighbors' negative attitudes or fears, unsubstantiated by factors properly cognizable in a zoning proceeding, are not a permissible basis" for denying a permit. Further, the court concluded that the city had acted improperly in "applying different standards" to the Islamic center than to the "worship facilities of other faiths."

This decision is binding authority in federal courts located within the fifth federal circuit, which includes the states of Texas, Lousiana, and Mississippi. Churches in these states that face antagonistic zoning boards should profit from this decision. Islamic Center of Mississippi, Inc. v. Starkville, 840 F.2d 293 (5th Cir. 1988)

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