Massachusetts residents sue state, claiming zoning law favors religion

Wednesday, September 2, 1998

A group of residents in Belmont, Mass., has filed a federal lawsuit challenging a statewide zoning law on constitutional grounds, charging that it favors religious organizations.

In March the Belmont Zoning Board of Appeals granted the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints a permit to build a 60-foot-high, 69,000-square-foot temple on top of Belmont Hill overlooking an area zoned for single-family homes. Residents hired two zoning attorneys, who late last week filed a federal lawsuit against the 1950 zoning law.

The zoning law grants nonprofit schools, churches and other religious institutions the right to build anywhere in the state, except Boston and Cambridge, regardless of local land-use regulations. Belmont is about seven miles northwest of Boston.

“Every zoning ordinance in every Massachusetts city, except Boston and Cambridge, has an automatic exemption for religious purposes and uses,” Michael Peirce, one of two attorneys representing the residents, said. “After examining federal court cases, it became apparent, from our perspective, that the U.S. Supreme Court has clearly stated that the establishment clause prohibits laws that aid one religion over all others or nonreligion. We just can't get around the sense that this zoning law is clearly an aid to all religions.”

Peirce added that the residents were not challenging the Mormon faith, but rather the state law they believe unconstitutionally favors religious land-use over all other uses.

“By specifically exempting religious institutions from all zoning use requirements, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has provided a significant advantage to religious institutions not enjoyed by non-religious institutions,” the residents argued in their suit. “Because they are exempted from all zoning use restrictions, religious institutions are able to build on lots ordinarily unsuitable for similar projects, thereby providing a distinct and substantial economic advantage.”

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against building the temple and a declaration that the 1950 zoning law violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. According to The Boston Globe, construction of the temple is already under way and the Mormon church hopes to occupy it by 2000.

Peirce said the temple would not resemble a typical house of worship attended by a few hundred people every Sunday. Instead, it would be a regional religious center for the six New England states, he said.

Gordon B. Hinckley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, described such temples as “different from the thousands of regular Church houses of worship scattered over the earth,” and “unique in purpose and function from all other religious edifices.” According to Hinckley, all who come to the temples must “come clean in thought, clean in body, and clean in dress,” and as “they enter they are expected to leave the world behind them and concentrate on things divine.”

Peirce, however, said that “the importance of the case, from our perspective, is the fact that the zoning law affects all religious land-use. It takes away the government's ability to regulate land-use for health, safety and welfare purposes of the community's residents.”

Noting language from U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas regarding the meaning of the establishment clause, Peirce said he was convinced the Massachusetts zoning law unconstitutionally benefits religion over nonreligion.

Douglas, citing Supreme Court precedent, wrote in the 1970 decision Walz v. Tax Commission “that neither a State nor the Federal Government 'can constitutionally pass laws or impose requirements which aid all religion as against non-believers, and neither can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.'”