The New Jersey supreme court upheld the application of the fire safety provisions of a state boarding house law to a rescue mission. The law in question was enacted in 1979 because of a number of fatal boarding house fires.
In rejecting the mission's claim that it was not subject to the fire safety provisions of the law, the court observed that "the state may justify a limitation on religious liberty by showing that it is essential to accomplish an overriding governmental interest." Protecting the residents of religious missions from fire hazards was an overriding governmental interest that outweighed any claim of religious freedom.
The court observed that "we suspect that had there been a fatal fire at a religious boarding house, society would not have shrugged its shoulders and concluded that the tragedy was of no moment since it had befallen a religious shelter. The state's legitimate concern for safety need not end at the shelter's door."
The court also upheld provisions in the law giving the state the authority to oversee and review the day-to-day operations of the mission, and to strike down any rule or practice it deemed unreasonable. However, the court emphasized that the "regulatory scheme cannot require such comprehensive, discriminating, and continuing state surveillance" as would result in an excessive entanglement between church and state. And, the court warned that "should the [state] exercise its discretion in a manner that unnecessarily intrudes into the mission's religious affairs, we shall promptly reconsider the matter."
Market Street Mission v. Bureau of Rooming and Boarding House Standards, 541 A.2d 668 (N.J. 1988)