A South Carolina town that had banned two Christian churches from its business district has reversed course.
The dispute arose in Gaffney, South Carolina, where Mayor Henry Jolly and the City Council adopted a zoning ordinance that excludes religious organizations from occupying commercial or store-front buildings in the downtown district if the sites previously were retail.
The American Center for Law and Justice already had sent a letter contending the ordinance was legally defective.
The letter said federal law and U.S. Supreme Court precedent prevent the city from discriminating against religious groups.
Now Abigail Southerland, an ACLJ senior litigation counsel, reports she raised the issue at a City Council meeting this week.
She charged the ordinance violates the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
While barring religious organizations, it freely permitted all secular nonprofit organizations in the same zoning district, she argued.
The City Council voted unanimously to amend the ordinance to remove the illegal provision barring ACLJ’s client churches, Innov8tion Church and Mission of Grace.
Southerland, who specializes in First Amendment litigation, said the newly amended ordinance will go into effect next month.
However, she said the process of removing the ordinance was “rocky.”
“Just one month ago, the planning commission voted by a 3-2 vote to keep the ordinance as written. In so doing, the commission explained that its purpose in passing the new provision just two years prior in 2017 was not to discriminate against religious organizations, but to ‘protect the purpose of a Core Commercial District in being the vibrant heart and center of our town to be a thriving business culture,'” Southerland said.
“The planning commission’s reasoning is an all too common justification for treating religious organizations less favorably than secular organizations and other similarly situated uses,” she continued, “Many times, local governments wish to confine churches to residential or mixed-use areas. This, however, poses substantial burdens on religious organizations in finding suitable properties. Further, in most cases no evidence is ever presented to support the notion that churches will harm the vitality of and/or contravene the purpose of a commercial district or downtown area.
“In fact, the contrary is often true. Churches contribute to these zoning areas by refurbishing and occupying long-time vacant buildings and by bringing patrons of restaurants and other commercial and retail businesses into the area during the week and at times that patrons wouldn’t typically visit. Other contributions and much needed services that churches bring to their communities is also commonly overlooked.”
She said that when adopting the federal law, “Congress found massive evidence of widespread discrimination against religious organizations through land use regulations. Thus, Congress was unequivocal that RLUIPA should be construed by courts to provide broad protection of religious exercise. Simply put, Congress intended the protections under RLUIPA to be concrete. I further explained to the city council that regardless of the city’s original intentions – i.e. to revitalize the downtown area and not to harm religious organizations – the ordinance remained illegal under RLUIPA’s equal terms provision and must be changed.”
The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act 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.”
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.