“Previously friendly neighbors become hostile enemies …”
This situation has been happening all over the country, in communities where churches have decided they want to expand their once modest centers in residential neighborhoods to accommodate a growing number of congregants and services. When non-member neighbors object, the land-use battles that erupt can become pretty nasty and drawn-out. Difficult legal and cultural issues fuel the fight, including questions about church-state separation and cherished ideals about religious freedom and the American dream of home ownership.
The quote and the ideas paraphrased above are from Marci Hamilton’s book God versus the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law. Hamilton, the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin Cardozo School of Law, is one the United States’ leading constitutional scholars specializing in church-state relations.
In a chapter on land-use wars between expansion-minded churches and their beleaguered neighbors, Hamilton describes the process of growing tensions in neighborhoods in Los Angeles and New York state.
Things have also gotten tense in once tranquil Saranap, an unincorporated neighborhood between Walnut Creek and Lafayette. Sufism Reoriented, a Saranap-based religious group, has spent the past few years urging Contra Costa County officals to let it build a new 66,000-square-foot worship center in a neighborhood made up mostly of mid-century ranch homes.
The county planning commission in early November said OK to the white, multi-domed facility, two-thirds of which would be built underground. A few weeks later, neighborhood opponents filed an appeal with the county Board of Supervisors, repeating many of the complaints they voiced in three planning commission meetings.
The neighbors said the project lacked adequate parking, violates fire codes, creates flooding concerns and is part of a “secret Sufi agenda,” reported the Contra Costa Times. Neighbors’ biggest complaint has to do with the size of the sanctuary. It would be built on three acres that combine seven lots previously occupied by single-family homes.
“When size and intense use combine to affect those who reside nearby, previously friendly neighbors can become hostile enemies,” Hamilton writes.
The changing role of American churches plays into these battles, Hamilton says. Churches are no longer just busy one or two days a week providing religious services. Hamilton says we live in the era of the mega-church, in which churches have become multiple-use service centers.
“The final factor in this house-of-worship expansion is that many congregations have come to think of themselves as ministers to all, not just their own members,’ Hamilton said.
In these neighborhood battles, you have a religious entity “experiencing a heady and exciting period of expansion,” Hamilton says. In this mindset, the church leaders “may well see earthly hurdles as contrary to its divinely inspired religious movement.”
On the other side are neighbors who, as with many Saranap sanctuary opponents, have typically, lived in the neighborhood for a long time, or they chose the neighborhood for its residential qualities, “so the new building project is a serious threat to their quality of life,” Hamilton says.
She continues: “To make matters worse for everyone concerned, a home is often a family’s largest financial and emotional, investment; thus when the character of the neighborhood and, therefore property values are threatened, homeowners understandably object.”
These disputes become laced with some pretty nasty charges from both sides. The religious group will say that neighborhood opponents are being anti-religious or are discriminating against their religious faith. The neighbors might envision some conspiracy or secret agenda, as is the case with the Sufism sanctuary opponents who question why the group needs such a big facility for only 350 members as in: Is the construction of this center part of some Sufism grab for power? Is it part of a plan to become a national center for the faith, attracting many more visitors than they are revealing in their project proposal?
Just so you know, Hamilton supports religious freedom, but wants reasonable limits for the good of everyone. “Religion’s force can be just another iteration of the drive to power,” she writes, saying that Americans should get over an unrealistic and hazardous belief “that religion is always for the good.” She says that “some religious conduct deserves freedom and some requires limitation.”
Hamilton’s chapter on land-use wars focuses on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 federal law which bars government entities from imposing land use regulations that create a “substantial burden” on a group’s right to religious assembly. Hamilton’s book documents the many legal battles over RLUIPA that have taken place over the years and in communities around the country.
Hamilton has serious concerns about RLUIPA, saying it shifts the balance of power in residential neighborhoods to religious landowners.” The residential quality of a neighborhood takes a back seat to the interests of the church group,” she said. “The untoward result is that homeowners become second-class citizens to their religious neighbors.”
RLUPIA has not yet publicly become an issue in the Sufism sanctuary debate, and it’s not known if the legal battle will go that far.
In the meantime, the dispute has left little love between either side, and religious faith among people on both sides could be one source of hard feelings.
Hamilton notes that Americans tend to be pretty religious. “Both sides are made up of people who are religious, so any implied condescension from the leader of the project can really hit a nerve, and even of whiff of holier-than-thou attitude from the members can lead to a conflagration of bad feelings,” Hamilton said.