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New York Church Banned from Operating Summer Glee Camp . . . on Its Own Property!

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January 8, 2015

First Liberty Institute defends First Presbyterian Church from City of Auburn’s discriminatory zoning enforcement

 

Government hostility to local houses of worship has reached epidemic levels—yet First Liberty Institute is fighting back to establish firm legal precedents that will bring the epidemic to an end.

Last month, First Liberty Institute and volunteer attorney Andy Leja of Hiscock & Barclay LLP, filed a brief defending First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, New York, from a city citation banning the church from holding a summer glee camp on its property. A pillar of the community for more than 200 years, the church is the victim of a discriminatory zoning enforcement that endangers the church’s ability to carry out its religious mission.

In July 2014, the city of Auburn, New York issued a citation to the First Presbyterian Church accusing it of violating the city’s zoning ordinance by collecting a fee from campers attending the church’s summer glee camp—calling this fee “commercial use” of the church’s property in a residential zone.  The city ordered the church to “immediately cease” operating the glee camp on its own property.

A TRADITION OF SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY

The church’s pastor, Rev. Eileen Winter, stated in her affidavit that First Presbyterian Church of Auburn has had a long history of supporting the arts in its community since the church’s founding in 1810 and that the church considers community service a part of its religious mission. As part of that outreach, for the past three years the church has operated a three-week summer music and theater camp for children and teens called “Glee Camp.”

Rev. Winter wrote that the Glee Camp has three purposes:

  1. Bringing new people into the church.

  2. Advancing the church’s religious mission of serving the community and supporting the love of music, an integral part of worship.

  3. Training future worship leaders and participants, both for the general community and for the church.

“We don’t know why the City chose to discriminate against the Glee Camp,”said Hiram Sasser, First Liberty Institute Director of Litigation. “As we win cases like this one, we will continue to set valuable precedent for churches across the country, and we look forward to this church once again offering the summer glee camp to the community it has faithfully served for two centuries.”

DEFENDING THE CHURCH FROM DISCRIMINATORY ENFORCEMENT

The brief submitted by First Liberty Institute and our volunteer attorney lists three arguments against the city’s discriminatory citation:

  • The Glee Camp is not a “commercial use.” Therefore, the city’s citation should be dismissed. The fee charged to campers was to cover the costs of the camp, not to make a profit.

  • Even if the Glee Camp were commercial, the city’s attempt to ban the church from operating the camp on its own property constitutes a violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), since the city allows exemptions for some commercial uses in residential zones, including temporary circuses and carnivals.

  • If the Glee Camp were commercial, the city’s citation would also violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution due to the commercial exemptions that the city allows to other entities.

In her affidavit, Rev. Winter wrote, “I believe this [zoning enforcement] action is a misguided and discriminatory act on the City’s part that not only harms the Church’s ability to carry out its religious mission in the community, but also threatens a chilling effect upon other faith organizations similarly situated in residential areas throughout the City.”

Rev. Winter, along with First Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys, shared more about the City’s discriminatory zoning ordinance, and its harmful impact on First Presbyterian Church, in a recent appearance on FOX News’ Huckabee with Mike Huckabee this past Saturday, January 3, 2015.

PROTECTING THE RELIGIOUS LIBERTY OF HOUSES OF FAITH

First Liberty Institute is committed to protecting the rights of First Presbyterian Church of Auburn, NY to fulfill its religious mission “to serve God by serving its community.” In addition, we also represent other churches and houses of faith 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. Read more.

  • Congregation Toras Chaim—For over three years, this small Jewish community in Dallas, Texas has met in members’ homes each week to pray and learn about their faith. Though the small congregation has been careful to be a good neighbor to the community, Toras Chaim became the victim of a lawsuit, filed last year by members of the neighborhood homeowners association. Read more.

  • Opulent Life Church—Who would have thought that a growing congregation in Holly Springs, Mississippi, would face discriminatory red tape when they tried to relocate to a larger worship space? Certainly not Pastor Telsa DeBerry of Opulent Life Church. Read more.

 

 

 

Thank you for joining with us through your prayer support and financial gifts to help continue defending and protecting the religious liberty rights of these and other houses of faith. Because you and other concerned Americans are standing with us, First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization solely dedicated to protecting religious freedom in America 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 www.FirstLiberty.org.

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