Church says Michigan zoning policy subverts its religious liberties

Thursday, March 16, 2000

A Christian congregation in Grand Haven, Mich., is challenging the city’s denial of a building permit, claiming that officials have discriminated against the church.

The Haven Shores Community Church, a member of the Reformed Church in America, has hired a religious-liberty advocacy group to sue city officials in federal court and force the city to grant a building permit.

On March 13, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty sued Grand Haven and its zoning board, claiming the church’s religious-liberty rights have been subverted.

The Haven Shores church says its mission is to “worship and glorify God by reaching out and serving the community.” The church holds services in a local high school and at other locations. Last year church officials rented a storefront at South Village Plaza where they planned to hold services.

According to the complaint, “the church believes that a nontraditional storefront ministry is necessary to provide the exposure and character it requires to minister to people with its contemporary forms of music expression, drama, theater, dance, worship, educational electives, youth programming, counseling, and outreach programs.”

When the church’s pastor, the Rev. Dave Bailey, sought a permit to make changes to the storefront in June, he was informed by city officials that use of the property for religious meetings and worship would not be acceptable under a zoning ordinance. The storefront is located in a “B-1 Community Business District,” which allows private clubs, fraternal organizations, lodge halls, private schools, concert halls and funeral homes.

After being denied the permit, Bailey wrote to the city’s director of public safety, saying that if “schools, private clubs, fraternal organizations and lodge halls” are allowed, then “a religious assembly hall should be allowed.”

The public safety director and the city’s planning commission still refused to issue the denial of the permit and in late August the Zoning Board of Appeals agreed with the denial.

The Becket Fund’s 14-page complaint accuses city officials of violating both the federal and state constitutions by “discriminating against religious use” while “permitting equivalent, non-religious use.”

Furthermore, the Becket Fund argues that city officials “impermissibly establish their own narrow model of a church that assumes that churches must be traditional, separate, steeple-and-stained-glass types of buildings, and punish Plaintiff for not fitting that model.” The city’s actions inhibit the church’s “right to freely exercise its religious faith,” the complaint states.

Bailey said in a prepared statement that he regretted having to file the complaint, but that “the only thing more regrettable is the city’s discriminating against a church in the first place.”

A call to Scott Smith, a city spokesman, about the lawsuit was not returned.

Kevin Hasson, Becket Fund president and general counsel, said the city officials’ reasons for denying the permit have ranged from “laughable to absurd.”

“City officials seem to prefer their churches with steeples and stained glass,” Hasson said. “But that is not their decision to make.”