February 2001 AU Bulletin

Massachusetts Religious Zoning Law Passes Court Test

Residents of a Boston suburb who sought to block construction of a large Mormon temple in a residential neighborhood lost their final appeal Jan. 8 when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the dispute.

Several people who live near the church in Belmont challenged a 1950 Massachusetts law that they say gives preferential treatment to religion by forbidding communities from banning the construction of buildings used for religious purposes in any zoning area. However, the law does permit local zoning boards to place restrictions on the size of such buildings and their parking lots.

Residents said the 69,000-square-foot temple was too large for the neighborhood but failed to persuade the courts. As the case went on, the church was completed and dedicated last October. A separate lawsuit against its planned 139-foot steeple goes on.

A federal court and the U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the church. The 1st Circuit held that the Massachusetts law was not favoritism toward religion but rather represented "a secular judgment that religious institutions...are compatible with every other type of land use and thus will not detract from the quality of life in any neighborhood." (Boyajian v. Gatzunis)

Appeals Court Rejects Lawsuit Challenging Christmas

The observance of Christmas as a federal holiday does not violate the separation of church and state, a federal appeals court has ruled.

In a brief order issued Dec. 19, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling dismissing the lawsuit against Christmas, which was brought by Cincinnati lawyer Richard Ganulin.

Ganulin, who is Jewish, told the Cincinnati Post he objects to the government celebrating a Christian holiday. "It's not that I'm against Christmas," he said. "I'm seeking the dignity of equality for non-Christians." Ganulin said he disagrees with the lower court, which held that although Christmas is a religious holiday, the government's reason for observing it can be secular.

The Cincinnati-based attorney said he plans to appeal the Ganulin v. U.S. case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Rhode Island Bill On Preamble Draws Criticism

A Rhode Island state senator is pushing a law requiring public school students to recite the preamble to the state's constitution every day, a move critics say is a backdoor effort to return prayer to schools.

The preamble includes reference to "Almighty God" and asks for God's blessing on the state. The sponsor of the measure, Sen. Daniel Issa, a Democrat from Central Falls, says the daily recitation will help students understand the state's history, but critics are not so sure.

"It is hard to conceive what secular purpose is served by reading this particular portion of the Constitution," Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Associated Press. "It's really just a sham."

Issa says no student would be required to recite the preamble under his bill, but opponents argue that youngsters who refused would risk singling themselves out for abuse or ridicule.

Churches Are Exempt From Calif. Preservation Law

Religious organizations are free from California's historic preservation law and may raze or modify houses of worship at will, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The state high court ruled 4-3 Dec. 21 that a 1994 California law exempting houses of worship from local historic preservation ordinances is constitutional. The measure blocks counties and cities from enforcing such laws against houses of worship, freeing them to demolish or alter their structures as they see fit.

In passing the law, the state "simply stepped out of the way of the religious property owner," Justice Marvin Baxter wrote for the majority.

But dissenting Justice Stanley Mosk argued that the measure infringes on church-state separation by giving religious groups a powerful benefit that other organizations do not enjoy. Mosk asserted that the ruling would give religious leaders the right to knock down historic structures "for the purpose of erecting an office building simply for financial advantage."

State legislators passed the law to help Roman Catholic Church leaders in San Francisco and Los Angeles who wanted to close a number of old churches with dwindling congregations. Some parishioners grew angry over the proposed closings and threatened to sue under historic preservation laws to keep the churches open.

A state judge declared the law unconstitutional in 1996, but his ruling was overturned on appeal. The state supreme court ruling upholds that opinion. (East Bay Asian Development Corporation v. State of California)

Las Vegas Implements Plan To Regulate Ministers

Seeking to crack down on fraud and an influx of marriages performed by "ministers" who obtained their credentials over the World Wide Web, legislators in Las Vegas have implemented new rules for clergy who wish to perform marriage ceremonies.

As of Jan. 1, ministers performing marriages must undergo criminal background checks and must have a congregation that meets weekly and has at least 20 members. Retired ministers are exempt, the Associated Press reported.

Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County are known for a proliferation of wedding chapels that are open around the clock. The county issued more than 114,000 marriage licenses in 1999, and officials argued that tighter rules were necessary.

"We needed a standard, we need something to go by," said Clark County Clerk Shirley Parraguirre, who distributes marriage licenses.

The Nevada branch of the American Civil Liberties Union protested the plan, saying the government has no business licensing the clergy. The ACLU pointed out that under the Clark County plan, Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi would not have been able to perform marriages.

Salt Lake City Main Street Belongs To Church, Court Rules

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has the right to curb certain forms of speech inside a Main Street Plaza that it now owns, a federal court has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Ted Stewart on Jan. 2 dismissed a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, which had argued that the plaza was a public forum because a walkway that runs through it is equivalent to a public sidewalk.

Stewart disagreed, saying the walkway is merely an easement. He did hold, however, that the public sidewalks at both ends of the plaza are appropriate for free-speech activities.

The city sold the property to the Mormon Church last year for $8.1 million. The church, which has a visitors center and other facilities in the area, turned it into a pedestrian plaza. The church restricts any "offensive, indecent, obscene, vulgar, lewd or disorderly speech" inside the plaza and also bans smoking, sunbathing and loud radios. Religious proselytism is limited to Mormon missionaries.

The ACLU is planning an appeal. "It's not right that a treasured public asset like Main Street can be given over to one viewpoint," said ACLU attorney Stephen Clark. (First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City v. Salt Lake City Corporation)

Creche Barred From Historic Green In Massachusetts

A local ordinance in Lexington, Mass., that regulates displays on the town green is constitutional, a federal court has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner on Dec. 6 upheld a new Lexington law that forbids the placement of "unattended structures" on the green for more than eight hours at a time. In doing so, she rejected a lawsuit from the Knights of Columbus, which had sued to have the ordinance overturned.

The Knights had been displaying a large Nativity scene on the green annually in late December for several years. Some residents have complained that the display amounts to a city endorsement of religion and threatened to demand the right to display other types of religious symbols. In response, the town selectmen decided to ban them all.

"The selectmen recognized that if they allowed the cr\xe8che, they would also have to permit each of these other displays to avoid endorsing any particular religion in violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution," Gertner wrote in the Knights of Columbus v. Town of Lexington ruling. "On the other hand, the selectmen worried that allowing such a variety of unattended structures--and livestock--to clutter the Green would disturb the historic ambiance of the area and detract from the residents' and tourists' experience of the town."

Lexington Green is famous as the site of one of the first skirmishes of the American Revolution, when colonists clashed with British troops on April 19, 1775.

Indian Government Rebuked Over Mosque Issue

The upper chamber of India's parliament voted in December to censure the Hindu-led government for failing to dismiss three cabinet ministers who backed the destruction of a Muslim mosque eight years ago.

The attack on the mosque, a structure dating back to the 16th century, sparked a riot that led to pitched battles between Hindus and Muslims. In recent years, Hindu nationalists have been pressing for the right to build a temple on the ruins of the mosque, located in the city of Ayodhya.

Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee rejected the demand that the ministers resign on Dec. 6 and went a step further by issuing a statement that many Hindu nationalists interpreted as an endorsement of their plan to build a Hindu temple in Ayodhya. Vajpayee, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, considered a moderate Hindu party, has denied he meant that. Alongside his own party, Vajpayee's fragile coalition government consists of secular parties and extreme Hindu nationalist parties.

Fundamentalist Hindus insist that the Ayodhya spot must feature a Hindu temple. They regard the site as the birthplace of Ram, a manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu. The Indian Supreme Court has issued an order blocking temple construction, but hard-line Hindu nationalists have vowed to ignore it and have already commissioned workers to carve stone pillars designed to hold up the temple.

Muslims are a minority in India, accounting for about 12 percent of the population. Hindus make up about 82 percent, and tension between the two groups is on the rise. In mid- December, Bal Thackeray, leader of an extreme Hindu party called Shiv Sena, urged the government to deny Muslims the right to vote so Hindu politicians will stop trying to appease them.