In Theory: The location of religious buildings

According to an article in the Arizona Republic, Arizona lawmakers passed a law earlier this year "that prohibits cities and towns from using zoning codes and land-use rules to restrict where religious facilities such as churches, mosques or synagogues can locate." In other words, local governments in Arizona now have less control over where religious buildings can be placed. Given that part of the national debate raging over plans for an Islamic center to be built within blocks of the old World Trade Center site in New York City has focused on whether the government should have any sway on where religious buildings can be constructed on privately-owned land, do you think that any government — whether it's municipal, state or federal — should have the power to restrict the location of religious buildings?


Having property — a physical place to provide religious services — is essential to religious freedom. Congress passed legislation in 2000 protecting religious organizations, and pointing out how easily zoning laws can be subverted to discriminate against new, small or unfamiliar religious groups.

Yet the rights of businesses and residential neighbors must also be respected. In an Arizona case, a church's property was in an historic district being revitalized for theaters and dining. Businesses objected because no alcohol could be served near a church. The problem was solved by amending the liquor laws.

A Connecticut Buddhist Cambodian Temple was denied a building permit because some of its festivals would attract more than 500 people in an area that could not handle that intensity of use. I think many of these conflicts will depend upon the context and will have to be settled in court.

Rev. Dr. Deborah Barrett

Zen Center of Orange County

Costa Mesa


"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

So states the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. It's a challenge for communities to provide places for religious gatherings. The demands for meeting places are on the rise. The only restrictions that should be placed on religious buildings should be about traffic, safety, parking, and architecture.

Our Constitution is clear: All religions are welcome as long as they are peaceful and abide by the laws of the community. Any compromise of these ideals can weaken the fabric of our rule of law.

Dr. Jim Turrell

Center for Spiritual Living Newport-Mesa


Our government already has the power to restrict construction of houses of worship and exercises that power every day through means of various codes. There are church buildings all over America that have been held up for years by governmental red tape.

The issue surrounding the construction of an Islamic center within 2 blocks of the site of the Islamic terrorists' attacks on 9/11 goes much deeper. I am of the opinion that the center will be viewed by Muslims as a symbol of Islamic supremacy and control. I am appalled at the hypocrisy of President Obama in calling for the building of a mosque on the site.

I would like to hear him call for the construction of a Christian church in Mecca. Somehow I expect to be waiting a long time for that kind of consistency in this president. The government can and should restrict the building of a symbol honoring those who murdered 3,000 innocent Americans just a few years ago.

Pastor Dwight Tomlinson

Liberty Baptist Church

Newport Beach


Zoning already determines what can be built and where locally, doesn't it?

There are four churches and three schools on our street with the Big Canyon Reservoir and Pacific View Memorial Park; Surely making Pacific View Drive a "public service street" was intentional. And, this generally works well since we usually cooperate with one another!

God has no investment in such boundaries, but city planners may. Municipal officials accountable to the electorate and seeking votes and favor might have little appetite for tolerance, perspective or shame and feed the fears and anger of citizens. People of religious faith in our God of peace and grace must stand united for mutual respect and justice. Certainly, the same factors should be weighed equally when such determinations are being made about churches, chapels, mosques, synagogues and temples.

(The Very Rev'd Canon) Peter D. Haynes

Saint Michael & All Angels Episcopal Church

Corona del Mar


There have, over the years, been many instances where government has restricted the erection of buildings intended for religious purposes — sometimes for reasons that violated the principle of religious freedom. For that reason, in 2000, Congress unanimously passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents government from unfairly imposing a "substantial burden" on religious exercise.

Does that mean that government should have no ability to restrict the location of religious buildings? Of course not.

There are times when a building is proposed in a location that for important reasons — safety, traffic, proximity of deleterious activities — needs to be regulated or restricted. In that case the government needs to demonstrate a "compelling reason" for their restriction. Arizona was merely implementing a law that more closely conformed with the federal regulation.

Tom Thorkelson

Director of Interfaith Relations

Orange County Council

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints


In theory, I do not think that the government should be able to restrict the location of religious buildings on private land. I believe that the separation of church and state allows for freedom of religion and so people of faith should be allowed to practice their faith, particularly when the land the sanctuary is built upon is privately owned.

However, I concede that I have not done a comprehensive examination of what the implications might be for zoning land religious or non-religious. For instance, are there traffic implications for putting a mega-church in a neighborhood? Or does this then rule out house-churches? This is a good question worthy of further discussion.

The Rev. Sarah Halverson

Fairview Community Church

Costa Mesa

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