The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that towns may legally prohibit church buildings in residential neighborhoods if noise and traffic might become a problem.

"We do not believe land use planners can assume anymore that religious uses are inherently compatible with family and residential uses," the three-judge panel wrote in its unanimous decision. "Religious uses may be, in some cases, incompatible with a place of 'quiet seclusion.'"

As megachurches continue to grow throughout the United States and houses of worship have become around-the-clock centers of activity, local governments are wrestling with how to balance the rights of homeowners with those accorded churches.

A recent USA Today article focused on this delicate balance reporting that more than 50 churches have recently filed lawsuits arguing over local government zoning restrictions. They claim First Amendment religious freedom protections, but they also have another powerful weapon: 2000's Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

A city attorney in one case told the newspaper that because churches are protected, they do as they like. He said: "If this was a Kmart, the city could've denied the special use permit without running afoul of federal law."

Religious land use experts told CT that last week's decision highlights struggles between churches and residents, but may not have much consequence on the future of the RLUIPA.

Abington Township vs. Congregation Kol Ami

Concerns over traffic and noise led Abington Township, Pennsylvania, to pass a 1996 zoning board ordinance permitting only agriculture, single-family, conservation, and recreation use in R-1 residential districts.

"Abington had come up with an innovative way to handle ...

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