• A New Jersey state appeals court rejected an effort by concerned citizens to prevent a Jewish congregation from constructing a synagogue in their residential neighborhood. The congregation proposed to construct a 2,000 square-foot sanctuary with 120 seats and a parking lot with room for 20 vehicles. The congregation claimed that it had to construct its building in a residential area, since most of its members were Orthodox Jews who had to walk to services on the Sabbath. The 20 parking spaces satisfied the local zoning law which required 1 parking space for every 6 sanctuary seats. The neighboring residents conceded that the planned synagogue met the technical requirements of the zoning ordinance, but they argued that the ordinance was invalid since it did not require adequate parking for houses of religious worship. A state appeals court rejected the neighbors’ position, and allowed the congregation to proceed with construction. The court acknowledged that zoning laws must advance the “public morals and the general welfare,” but it noted that “the courts have held that religious activity itself is in furtherance of public morals and the general welfare, and that religious institutions enjoy a highly-favored and protected status, which severely curtails the permissible extent of governmental regulation.” For a zoning law to be invalid, it must be arbitrary or not reasonably designed to advance public morals or the general welfare. The court concluded that the neighboring residents had failed to satisfy this test. While the court agreed that more parking spaces might be desirable, it could not agree that the zoning ordinance was “arbitrary.” It noted that the congregation’s members were forbidden to drive to religious services on the Sabbath, and that off-street parking was available to accommodate vehicles during occasional social events occurring during the week. The court also quoted with approval from rulings of the United States Supreme Court that have found that “the Constitution affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any,” and that “[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” It concluded that “our branches of government have a right, indeed an obligation, to recognize the freedom of all to worship and to do that which is reasonable to respect this essential freedom.” The court acknowledged that “it was probably impossible” for a growing congregation to build a sanctuary in a residential neighborhood “without offending some residents.” However, “the law cannot expect the impossible.” Lakewood Residents Association v. Congregation Zichron Schneur, 570 A.2d 1032 (N.J. Super. 1989).
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