A Hispanic church
in suburban Philadelphia has triumphed in a two-year government
battle over using its property for church services.
Carlos LaMarche, his wife, Milagros (front row), and
church members are looking forward to remodeling after
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 areas 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 townships decision, saying
the First Amendment attests that the government had no authority
to unreasonably restrict the churchs use of the land.
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."
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
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.
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.
been [up against] the city [government] for a long time,"
Cruz says. "This is a big victory for us."
an attorney representing the church in the suit, says the
townships decision is important because under the
U.S. Constitution the church has the right to meet there.
one the position of the zoning board was we already
have too many churches in Willingboro," Singer
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.
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 wont happen, regardless of what the church does.
The board showed no compelling reason why the church couldnt
Singer says the
church is now proceeding with plans to renovate the larger
building and demolish the other for additional parking.
Kennedy, with Associated Press reports