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Austin Cline

Town Creates Zoning Rules Favoring Religious Groups

By February 7, 2006

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In Telluride, Colorado, the town council has given all houses of worship an exemption from zoning ordinances, allowing them to build steeples or towers taller than is allowed for any other buildings used for any other purposes. They think that this is legal because it doesn't privilege just one religion. Apparently, privileging all religions is perceived as constitutional.

The Telluride Daily Planet reports:

After comments during the last town council meeting - when at least one speaker questioned the move - town staff changed the rules to broaden the definition of “church.” Instead of just allowing Christian churches to exceed the regulations, it says that any “building [used] for public worship of any denomination” may do so.

This would mean that mosques could have rising minarets or Buddhists could build a tall pagoda. In fact, any “traditional, denominational religious building” can build an appurtenance, or something that sticks up above the normal roofline. “These changes would address any concerns that any specific religion is being favored over another religion,” the ordinance says.

I’d accept that the town council believes this, but it might behoove the town council to obtain the services a lawyer who understands constitutional law because Town Attorney Susan Baker, who approved the above, just isn’t good enough.

“I think establishment of religion is when one religion is promoted over another or when one religion is given special treatment,” Baker said. The new ordinance “doesn’t favor one practice over another.”

Privileging all religions over everyone is also against the constitution — the Supreme Court made this clear in the case of Boerne v. Flores.

Marc Froehlich said the problem wasn’t that it favored Christianity, but that it favored religions in general. He said he felt that the ordinance violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, “and we in America clearly don’t do that.”

Council member Andrea Benda voted against the rule. “It’s allowing people who practice organized religion to have more benefits than people who don’t,” she said. She said it would be better to allow every building, regardless of its use, to build towers.

Froelich and Benda seem to have been the only two sensible people involved in this case.

George Greenbank, the architect who designed the Alpine Chapel, warned of opening the floodgates too wide. “A lot of people building private residences in town would love to have a tower,” he said.

In other words, Greenbank was cautioning people to be careful to only exempt houses of worship from general zoning laws so that not everyone would have a chance to build towers? What happened to the principle of the equal protection of the laws? Since when did religious organizations obtain a special, privileged status that puts them above the law in ways that the rest of us can’t enjoy?

If I lived in Telluride, I’d apply to build a tower above the restricted height and, when denied, I’d challenge it in court — a blanket zoning exemption that exists solely for religious groups is an unconstitutional privileging of religion that simply can’t survive constitutional scrutiny. If there is any justice in the world, the town will then deduct the legal costs of defending the absurd exemption from the salaries of all those who voted for it as well as from the salary of Susan Baker.


Separation of Church & State:


Christian & Religious Privilege:

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