Michigan church wins right to worship in storefront

Thursday, January 4, 2001

When the Rev. David Bailey wanted to move his Sunday services from a
local high school to a small shopping center in Grand Haven, Mich., he met
opposition from city officials. But a settlement reached last month will allow
the Haven Shores Community Church to occupy a small storefront in the city’s
South Village Plaza.

In 1999, the city refused to grant the church a building permit to
modify the space. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, based in Washington,
D.C., filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church on March 10, 2000, claiming that
Grand Haven had violated the church’s constitutional rights to freedom of
speech, religion, assembly, due process and equal protection under the law.

On Dec. 20, U.S. District Judge David McKeague signed a consent order
allowing the church to move into the storefront.

The Becket Fund says the case is the first to be settled under
provisions of the Religious Land Use
and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed last September by President

This settlement is “a very satisfying victory, both because it
represents the first successful lawsuit under RLUIPA and because Grand Haven
ultimately recognized the fact that the U.S. Constitution provides important
protections for the free exercise of religion that are too often violated by
local zoning ordinances around the country,” said Becket Fund President Kevin
Hasson in a news release.

“This case is a wake-up call for other communities that assume they
have nearly unlimited latitude in using zoning laws to severely restrict
churches and other religious organizations,” Hasson said.

Michael S. Bogren, attorney for the city, would not comment on the
case. But a news release, issued Jan. 2 by the city, states that “the City’s
zoning ordinance as it is currently written could not be legally applied to
exclude the Church’s location in the South Village Plaza. Accordingly, the
parties have agreed to settle the matter rather than continuing to incur the
expense of continuing the dispute.”

According to a statement released by the Becket Fund, when Bailey
applied for a permit to occupy the space, city officials told him that
religious meetings and worship were not permitted at that location under city
zoning laws. But, the statement said, the city’s zoning ordinance did allow
such facilities as private clubs, fraternal organizations, lodge halls, funeral
homes, theaters, assembly halls and “similar places of public assembly” to
reside at the mall.

“It is irrational to distinguish between a church and a Masonic
lodge,” Hasson said.

McKeague expressed similar concerns while hearing arguments in the

“This case raises an interesting issue — principally whether the
city acted to put a church in one zone and not another,” he said, as reported
by The Detroit News . “I am having a
lot of trouble distinguishing this church from other halls,” he said.

Last spring, the Grand Haven City Council approved a resolution
explaining why it did not want churches to be included in community business

“There is a feeling the existence of a church in smaller retail zones
… may discourage retail activity in those districts,” the resolution

But Bailey said he wanted his church to be housed in a location with a
high traffic pattern. “We are trying to reach out to people who don’t go to
church,” Bailey told The Grand Rapids
. “Church is not being done the way it was 20 to 30 years