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December 31, 2000: California church trailblazer for city's revitalization

December 24, 2000: New Jersey township retracts impediment to A/G congregation

December 10, 2000: Christmas stocking project brings hope, gifts to needy kids

November 26, 2000: A/G church looks to second half-century with founding pastor

November 19, 2000: Quest for souls occupies Christians during Olympics

November 12, 2000: Three ministers reaching their world

October 29, 2000: A/G Minister to ride to each state capitol, pray for nation

October 22, 2000: Art academy connects students with Creator

October 15, 2000: Columbine survivors share testimonies, hundreds respond

October 8, 2000: Graham conducts final evangelism conference

September 24, 2000: Independent congregation receives help from Lousiana A/G church

September 17, 2000: California ministry team breaking strongholds

August 27, 2000: Bold outreach touches hurting in Allentown

August 20, 2000: Baptist church gives A/G congregation its facility

August 13, 2000: Climbers conquer Kilimanjaro, help A/G

July 30, 2000: Chicago church, city partner to improve lives of women, children

July 9, 2000: New Mexico fires damage A/G families’ homes

June 25, 2000: God moves in Mississippi high school assembly

June 18, 2000: California skate park becomes 'teen church'

June 11, 2000: Convoy and partners team up to reach poor

May 28, 2000: Tornado damages A/G church in Texas

May 21, 2000: National Prayer Center ministry expands reach

May 14, 2000: Adventure, ministry on Pathfinder missions

April 30, 2000: Church reaching deaf students in Louisiana

April 23, 2000: 40-day fasts unite, renew A/G churches

April 9, 2000: Colorado church booms with bilingual services

March 26, 2000: Cell groups strengthen California youth group

March 19, 2000: Michigan church bounces back from brink of closing

March 12, 2000: A/G man holds world arm-wrestling title

February 27, 2000: A/G minister helps others get their wings

February 20, 2000: Former editor with Christ

New Jersey township retracts impediment to A/G congregation

(December 24, 2000)

A Hispanic church in suburban Philadelphia has triumphed in a two-year government battle over using its property for church services.

Pastor Carlos LaMarche, his wife, Milagros (front row), and church members are looking forward to remodeling after court case.

Primera Iglesia Hispana de Willingboro (First Hispanic A/G) of Willingboro, N.J., purchased a former newspaper office building in June 1998 for $75,000. The 45-member congregation, started in 1991, has been meeting in a Baptist church for services. Pastor Carlos LaMarche said the church wanted to open the facility in the low-income area not only for worship services but as a place to hold events for the area’s youth.

But in April 1998, the Willingboro Township Council designated the area where the church property is located as a "primary business district." When church officials in November 1998 went to the township to request permission to remodel the building and tear down an adjacent structure for more parking spaces, officials refused to grant a rezoning variance.

The church filed suit, and in January 2000, state Superior Court Judge Jan M. Schlesinger reversed the township’s decision, saying the First Amendment attests that the government had no authority to unreasonably restrict the church’s use of the land.

"Religious institutions enjoy a highly favored and protected status which severely curtails the permissible extent of the zoning power," Schlesinger ruled. "They do have a special place in our society."

The township appealed the ruling, with Mayor Jeff Ramsey saying the church should not be allowed because it will not add tax revenue as a business would.

In late October, the township dropped its appeal, citing new federal legislation. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, signed into law by President Clinton in September, tips the balance in favor of religious institutions seeking to start programs or build, expand, renovate or demolish on their property.

The measure gives religious groups an advantage in going before local zoning boards, requiring governments to have a "compelling interest" to enact land-use regulations that impose a "substantial burden" on religious activities.

Joel Del Toro, Spanish Eastern A/G District superintendent, is glad that the Willingboro zoning battle is over.

"It’s good news, not only for them but for all churches," Del Toro says.

Tammy Cruz, a deacon at Primera Iglesia Hispana, says the church now will be able to focus on ministry.

"We’ve been [up against] the city [government] for a long time," Cruz says. "This is a big victory for us."

Jonas Singer, an attorney representing the church in the suit, says the township’s decision is important because under the U.S. Constitution the church has the right to meet there.

"From day one the position of the zoning board was ‘we already have too many churches in Willingboro,’" Singer says.

But even beyond religious freedom concerns, Singer says township officials had illogical economic arguments for wanting to keep Primera Iglesia Hispana from remodeling on the half acre. He notes that the property had been vacant for seven years before the church bought it.

"The city offered no testimony to back up its argument that allowing the church would have a negative effect on redevelopment," Singer told the Evangel. "Redevelopment either will or won’t happen, regardless of what the church does. The board showed no compelling reason why the church couldn’t be there."

Singer says the church is now proceeding with plans to renovate the larger building and demolish the other for additional parking.

— John W. Kennedy, with Associated Press reports

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