Churches too noisy?
Three years ago, a Jewish congregation sought to purchase an 11-acre property in the Philadelphia suburbs to build a synagogue. Neighbors protested the plan, citing heavy traffic, noise, and pollution. The zoning board agreed and blocked the purchase.

Yesterday the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals supported the Abington Township decision, saying that towns may legally prohibit churches and temples in residential neighborhoods for concerns of noise and traffic.

"Abington had come up with an innovative way to handle the difficult issue of what to do with these churches and synagogues that have become 24-hour service operators," Marci Hamilton, a township attorney, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "They've said, 'No more in residential districts. It's too intense of a use.' And that's been upheld."

A 1996 Abington Township zoning board ordinance permits only agriculture, single-family, conservation, and recreation use within Abington's R-1 residential districts. Special permits have been given to a riding academy, a kennel, a municipal complex, and emergency services. Under a 1992 Abington zoning guidelines, churches, hospitals, and schools must be built in nonresidential areas.

Yesterday's decision reversed a 2001 district ruling in which the judge struck down Abington's 1996 zoning law and ordered the township to let the congregation apply for a special exception.

The 3rd Circuit's three-judge panel said yesterday that large religious bodies often create traffic problems. "The facts of this case illustrate why religious uses may be, in some cases, incompatible with a place of 'quiet seclusion,'" the opinion states. "We do not believe land use planners can assume any more that religious uses are inherently compatible with family and residential uses."

The U.S. District Court will now hear the case again. "They've sent this case back to the district court to develop a factual record," an attorney for the congregation told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I don't think the township should get too confident. We've still got six ways from Sunday to win this case."

According to The Inquirer, the case is one of more than 30 cases now in the courts challenging the constitutionality of the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits religious bias in zoning decisions.

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