Justice Department backs Christian Fellowship Center of New York in Canton lawsuit
An evangelical Christian congregation is receiving support from the federal government in its efforts to convert a former gentlemen’s club into a church in a village in upstate New York.
The Justice Department announced last week that it has filed a statement of interest for the Christian Fellowship Center of New York in its lawsuit against Canton, a village in the northern part of the state whose zoning authorities denied a permit to use a three-story former tavern and club for religious assembly.
The congregation bought the building in January, paying $310,000 and $18,000 for unpaid taxes on it, according to court documents.
Canton officials have denied the congregation a permit for a church, noting it would be in a commercial zone that does not include religious establishments. The officials have argued that a church there could prevent the opening of a future tavern or eatery because the state bars alcohol-serving establishments from being located within 200 feet of a house of worship.
The Justice Department attorneys say that is religious discrimination, in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
“The right to the free exercise of religion includes the freedom to assemble in a house of worship,” Grant C. Jaquith, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of New York, said in a statement. “When faith communities face discrimination through zoning or land use regulation, we will use the full force of federal law to ensure that this fundamental right is not unlawfully infringed.”
Meanwhile, the Christian Fellowship Center has been paying $500 in rent each Sunday to hold its weekly services in a ballroom at a Best Western hotel.
Canton’s top zoning officer and appeals board have denied the congregation’s application for a certificate of occupancy for the purposes of a church, saying the building is in a district zoned only for commercial purposes, such as bars and pool halls places a church might caution its parishioners to avoid.
“What is certain is that a church is not a commercial enterprise; a church is not in the business of selling items or libations to the public,” attorney Gregg Johnson, who is representing the village, said in a recent court filing.
But Justice Department attorneys note in the statement of interest that the area is not a “purely commercial” district, as it includes several philanthropic organizations. That amounts to preferential treatment for religious institutions and the lack of a building is harming the congregation, the federal attorneys say.
Court documents note that the first Christian Fellowship Center was established in 1974 in a chicken coop and the church has grown to various locations across northern New York. The Canton location has only 34 active members and no place for mid-week ministries, such as counseling, or for the band to practice.
“A common question is, ‘Where will the church meet next week?’” attorneys John W. Mauck and John Collins wrote in the congregation’s initial court plea.
Canton’s attorney, Mr. Johnson, has argued there are other potential locations for a church, noting that less than 2 percent of the village is zoned for commercial purposes. The congregation should have applied for a variance to the village’s zoning ordinances and state law, he says.
Summarizing the congregation’s argument, Mr. Johnson said in a court filing: “Simply stated, the Village must allow houses of worship everywhere within its borders, irrespective of the Village’s Zoning Code.”
This was the Justice Department’s second RLUIPA filing in as many weeks. Earlier last month the department backed a small American Indian tribe in New Jersey blocked by a homeowner’s association from establishing a prayer circle and sweat lodge on its property.