The American Center for Law and Justice is warning a South Carolina city to lift its ban on new churches in its downtown district or end up in court.
Gaffney, South Carolina, Mayor Henry Jolly and the city council adopted a zoning ordinance that specifically excludes religious organizations from occupying commercial or store-front buildings in the town’s downtown district if those sites previously were retail.
In a letter, ACLJ warned that the federal law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent prevent the city from discriminating against religious groups.
The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, for example, states: “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution.”
The city responded by inviting ACLJ to propose an amendment to its zoning plan.
At the first hearing, Gaffney’s planning commission voted 3-2 to affirm the provision excluding churches. ACLJ said a request for amendment of the ordinance is scheduled to be heard by the city council on Feb. 4.
The legal group is prepared to file a lawsuit if the city council, like the planning commission, votes to uphold the provision.
City administrator James Taylor admitted to WND the intent of the ordinance was to allow secular groups to occupy store fronts while specifically banning any “religious” organization from doing the same.
“That’s the wording of the ordinance,” he said.
Any fraternal, political, or civic organization could choose to relocate to the downtown district.
Two churches, the Innov8tion Church and Mission of Grace, are working with ACLJ to obtain permission to occupy downtown sites in Gaffney.
ACLJ said in its letter to Gaffney officials that in light of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s “clear prohibition on unequal treatment of religious organizations, the ACLJ’s legal letter to city officials demanded that the city remove the illegal provision and allow the churches to continue with their plans to lease buildings in the CC district.”
“The city responded by encouraging our client churches to submit a proposal to amend the ordinance, so we did.”
Courts already repeatedly have decided “a regulation will violate the Equal Terms provision if it treats religious assemblies or institutions less well than secular assemblies or institutions that are similarly situated,” ACLJ said.
“Circuits may differ slightly regarding the test employed in evaluating an alleged violation of RLUIPA’s equal terms provision, it remains clear that a zoning ordinance that singles out and treats religious organizations on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution is rarely justified,” the letter told the city.
The letter continued: “In the present case, Gaffney’s zoning ordinance specifically excludes religious organizations from occupying commercial and storefront buildings in the Core Commercial District (CC), while permitting ‘all other organizations’ (i.e. all non-religious organizations) and similar uses such as museums, historical sites and fitness centers.”