Pa. City Amends Zoning Ordinance to Remove Church Ban

The City Council of Titusville, Pa., about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh, has voted to modify its zoning ordinance which had originally banned churches from being located within the commercial district.

The decision last Tuesday was a result of a federal lawsuit that was filed by Christian legal group Liberty Counsel on behalf of Lighthouse Christian Center, noting that the "church-free" zone was violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

The Fourteenth Amendment states that "no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property."

"We are pleased that local governments are getting the message that churches are not second-class property owners," commented Liberty Counsel founder Mathew Staver, in a statement. "The First Amendment and federal law both provide that churches and houses of worship should receive equal, if not preferential, treatment to other similar zoning uses. Churches are not orphans to any zoning district."

According to Lighthouse staff, the local church was in need of a location that could house its growing ministries, especially their youth outreach. Until last summer, the ordinance had forced them to locate themselves in a residential area which they report as having no sewer or running water.

Once the religious center had outgrown the facility, it confirmed a spot within Titusville's C-1 commercial zone in July 2006. Tim Lorenz, a building inspector and zoning officer for the city of Titusville, would not allow the religious institution in the city, however, citing the "Codified Ordinances of Titusville."

The city law only provided space for stores, restaurants, offices, theaters, gas stations, hotels, clubs and other nonreligious services.

Lighthouse attendants then had to move to another temporary location outside the city that lacked heat and insulation. In addition, the church's target youth ministry demographic was inside the C-1 district.

"[The church was] in dire straits because this particular city ordinance [had] essentially removed them from the city limits and they [couldn't] use the property that was ideal for them," explained Staver in Cybercast News Service.

Lorenz clarified that he had nothing against Lighthouse Christian Center, but that he was simply holding up the law, which had been around since 1976.

"It is a pretty old ordinance, and what the people who are responsible for writing the ordinance had in mind back then, I have no idea," said the building inspector in defense of his position in Cybercast News Service. "I am just enforcing it as it is written."

Following the lawsuit brought up by Liberty Counsel attorneys, the city reached a settlement with the Christian litigation group where officials agreed to eliminate the discriminatory ordinance and amend its policy.

Lighthouse Christian Center can now move into the commercial district where members are planning their outreach, which includes a Christian bookstore, television ministry, outreach to teens, and church services. The city of Titusville also paid for attorney's fees.

In addition to Lighthouse, several other cities in the past have resolved the similar situations, including a decision by the City Council of Washburn, Wis., which voted in March to repeal its zoning ordinance to eliminate discriminatory restrictions on churches. The ordinance prior to the vote prohibited any church from locating on commercial property, even though the code permitted other nonreligious public assemblies within the same commercial districts. Church officials in that case had also contacted Liberty Counsel for assistance.