• A federal appeals court ruled that a church’s constitutional right to religious freedom was not violated by a county’s refusal to permit the church to construct a sanctuary on land not specifically zoned for church uses. The church owned an 80-acre tract of vacant land in an area zoned for agricultural uses. Its application for a special permit to construct a sanctuary was rejected by the county planning commission because of a number of concerns, including access problems, erosion hazards, and inadequate fire protection at the site. The appeals court rejected the church’s claim that its right to freely exercise its religion had been violated by the county’s action. It found that the county’s action did “not in any way regulate the religious beliefs of the church,” and did not regulate “any religious conduct of the church or its members.” The court concluded that “a church has no constitutional right to be free from reasonable zoning regulations nor does a church have a constitutional right to build its house of worship where it pleases.” Of far greater significance than the court’s ruling is the dissenting opinion of one of the court’s three judges. The dissenter insisted that the court had improperly viewed the church’s interest as “merely a secular building activity.” On the contrary, “places of worship have in almost all religions been as integral to their religion as have Sunday School, preaching, hymn singing, prayer, and other forms of worship …. Churches are the situs for the most sacred, traditional exercise of religion: baptisms, confirmations, marriages, funerals, sacramental services, ordinations, and rites of passage of all kinds.” Indeed, “if first amendment free exercise rights are not triggered by the impingement on places of worship, the right of free exercise of religion is for practical purposes subject to broad infringement in all of its aspects except perhaps belief.” The dissenter further noted that when government agencies seek to encumber the use of buildings for religious worship, they are, in fact, impinging on … three different interests recognized by the first amendment itself—speech, assembly, and religious exercise.” Because of this significant impact on constitutionally protected rights, the court had erred in too quickly dismissing the church’s interest as “merely a secular building activity” that required little judicial deference. Messiah Baptist Church v. County of Jefferson, 859 F.2d 820 (10th Cir. 1988).
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