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Some neighbors tend to complain about too many Wal-Marts or too many strip joints in their midst. In southeast Orlando, it's too many churches.

About a dozen churches—Baptist, Nazarene, Pentecostal and independent—are located within a few miles of each other on the city's outskirts, and more are under construction.

Neighbors venturing out Sunday mornings for bagels or errands often find themselves stuck in traffic, heads bowed not in faith but frustration. Some complain the congestion persists all week as religious, youth, sports, and other activities draw crowds after work and school, too.

Unmitigated by taxes, zoning, or other restrictions, church development can pose a delicate quandary for municipal leaders who want to balance neighbors' concerns with the valuable services churches provide.

In some places, a concentration of churches—because of their tax-exempt status—strains the economy.

Frustrations have grown especially since Bill Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000, said Marci Hamilton, a professor and church-state scholar at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City.

The law protects religious landowners from many zoning and other restrictions that apply to other developers, she said. Across the country, governments are challenging the law in cases that could eventually reach the Supreme Court. But it will take time, and meanwhile, neighbors are unhappy, she said.

"It's happening all over the country," Hamilton said. "I get an e-mail from a new neighborhood daily. It's unbelievable what religious entities are willing to impose on residential neighborhoods [because of this law]."

Religious leaders say they are responding to community growth ...

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Too Many Churches?
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October 2007

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