Megachurch and state are colliding in a dispute over a church's expansion plans in a New Jersey suburb. Rockaway Township approved Christ Church's plan to build a new sanctuary, but attached 45 conditions in its October decision. The church may not hold Friday or Sunday night services and can build only 900 parking spacesnot the 1,370 requested. The town also required a two-hour break between services at the 58-acre facility. Bible studies may only be held on Wednesdays.
The 5,000-member, nondenominational church formally opposed the restrictions in an October letter to the planning board.
"We look at that as a way to go through the back door to limit our sanctuary," Christ Church pastor David Ireland told CT. "No other church or religious institution has any of these restrictions, so that's where it becomes an issue of bias."
The township's planning board scheduled a January 8 meeting to review the church's requests. The church plans to sue if the board does not make the requested changes.
"We've tried our best to balance the interests of the town also, and to mitigate the strain that it's going to create on the township," mayor Louis Sceusi told RNS.
Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, said such restrictions usually stem from concerns about traffic congestion and lost tax revenues.
"You can't go anywhere and not run into zoning fights, land fights," Haynes said. "Growth in these large megachurches has triggered a lot of these battles."
Due to the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, governments must show compelling reasons for restrictions.
"They have to show that their interests trump religious freedom, and that's hard," Haynes said. "The trend is victory [for religious groups] ...1
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