City BANS CHURCH from Outreach to Kids . . . on Its Own Property!

February 6, 2015

First Liberty Institute steps in to defend youth outreach of Auburn, New York, congregation


At a hearing this past Wednesday, February 4, 2015, First Liberty Institute, along with our volunteer attorneys, argued for the religious liberty rights of First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, New York.

In July 2014, the City of Auburn sent a cease-and-desist order demanding that the church stop their outreach to the kids in their community through a Glee Camp on church property!  The City said that since the camp charged a fee for its summer Glee Camp it violated the city’s zoning ordinances.


In response, First Liberty Institute and volunteer attorney Andy Leja of Hiscock & Barclay LLP, filed a brief in December 2014 on behalf of the church, defending it from the cease-and-desist order.  At this week’s hearing, we argued that the city’s unlawful enforcement action should be dismissed because it violates the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA).  Auburn City Court Judge David B. Thurston took the case under advisement and a decision is forthcoming.

“We are encouraged by today’s proceedings and are hopeful that Judge Thurston will dismiss the city’s attempt to use its zoning laws to punish churches for serving the kids and families in the community,” said First Liberty Institute Director of Litigation, Hiram Sasser.

He added, “The First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protect a church’s fundamental and constitutional right to use their own property to engage in acts of worship and community service.”


From its campus within an R-2 Residential Zoning District, First Presbyterian Church has conducted on its property many outreach programs—including hosting veterans groups, prayer groups, grief support groups, youth and marriage retreats, and music festivals—to the surrounding community where the church has been located since 1975.

One of the church buildings is a 36,000 square-foot mansion that was constructed by Theodore Case, the inventor of sound recordings placed on film. When the home, which sat adjacent to the church’s property, became available for purchase, First Presbyterian Church saw this as an opportunity to acquire the home and expand the congregation’s outreach to the surrounding community.

For the past three years, First Presbyterian Church has donated this part of its campus to host a musical theater summer camp—Glee Camp—to serve the community’s local children and their families.  In order to offset costs of instructors and materials for the three-week-long session that includes singing, dancing, and acting classes, young campers paid a fee.  The church made no profit from hosting the Glee Camp and, in fact, lost money.

But making money was never the intent of Glee Camp, as Rev. Eileen Winter explained in her affidavit:

“First, [Glee Camp] brings in persons with whom we want to build a faith relationship who may be reluctant to visit our Church or may be looking for a church home.

“Second, the camp advances the Church’s religious mission of supporting the community and the love of music.  Music is an integral part of religious worship, as recorded in both the Old and New Testaments as well as the traditions of the Church.

“Third, the camp helps us train an upcoming generation of future worship leaders and participants for our community in general and our Church specifically.”


While the matter remains under advisement, Rev. Winter has hope that First Presbyterian Church will be able to hold the Glee Camp on church property this coming summer.

“First Presbyterian Church has had a wonderful relationship with our community for over two hundred years,” said Rev. Winter.  “We look forward to Judge Thurston’s ruling with the hope that we can put this behind us and get back to our primary goal of serving God by serving our community.”

First Liberty Institute is committed to standing with First Presbyterian Church and all churches, synagogues, and religious organizations in the defense of religious liberty—including these houses of faith and First Liberty Institute clients that have faced discrimination:

  • Cornerstone Church by the Bay—When Cornerstone Church by the Bay acquired property in Bayview, Texas, it requested permission from the town to use its property as a church and school.  But in June 2014, after denying Cornerstone’s request, the Bayview Board of Aldermen unanimously voted to ban churches and schools from the area where Cornerstone’s property sits—despite allowing nonreligious institutions in that exact same area.  Last fall, a United States District Court Judge issued a preliminary injunction, and the favorable ruling allows the church and school to use their own property in their ministries.
  • Congregation Toras Chaim—For over three years, this small Orthodox Jewish community in far north Dallas, Texas has peacefully met in a private home each week to worship.  Though the house of faith has been careful to be a good neighbor to the community, Congregation Toras Chaim became the victim of a lawsuit, filed last year by a neighbor and the homeowners association.  This week, however, a judge dismissed the lawsuit which allows the congregation to continue studying the tenets of faith in a private home.
  • Opulent Life Church—When the church searched for larger space to rent in the downtown area of Holly Springs, Mississippi, the city required churches, and only churches, to obtain the approval of 60 percent of local property owners and also the mayor before they were allowed to occupy their new space.  Following First Liberty Institute’s intervention and a landmark decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, a settlement was reached with the city and Opulent Life Church was able to permanently move to a larger, downtown Holly Springs location.


The government should never use zoning laws to punish churches like First Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York, for engaging in acts of worship or ministering to kids and families in their communities.

That’s why we’re counting on friends like you—through your ongoing financial and prayer support—to help unleash our national network of volunteer attorneys who know the local territory and how to win.  Every $1 you contribute translates to $6 in pro bono (free) legal time, meaning every dollar you donate goes a long way to help bring down Goliaths like the ACLU, Freedom From Religious Foundation, and anti-religious governmental entities.

So thank you for standing with First Liberty Institute, with First Presbyterian Church, and with all houses of faith facing discrimination that want to serve their communities nationwide today!

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About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

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