COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY
House of Representatives
"Religious Liberty Protection Act of 1998" H.R. 4019
July 14, 1998
Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory
Director, Washington Office
Presbyterian Church (USA)
I am Rev. Elenora Giddings Ivory. I serve as the Director of the Washington Office of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Our Church has approximately 11,500 congregations all across the United States and Puerto Rico. I am here today to share with you our support for H.R. 4019, the
"Religious Liberty Protection Act of 1998".
We thought it would be valuable for you to hear the results of the data we collected in the annual session reports regarding land use difficulties and PC(USA) congregations. This data was collected during our regular annual statistical gathering process where we ask the sessions of congregations to tell us things like how many new members in the past year; how many baptisms and how many deaths.
Question number 6, of the most recent survey asked, "Since January 1, 1992, has your congregation needed any form or permit from a government authority that regulates the use of land? These authorities include zoning boards, planning commissions, landmark commissions, and (sometimes) city/county councils?" Our Presbyterian Church (USA) forms are suppose to be filled out by all 11,500 of our congregations. The response rate for this last session survey was almost 90% of our churches.
Rather than just sharing what is sometimes dispassionate statistical information of a survey, I thought I would share stories involving land use troubles experienced by congregations who responded to the survey. We wanted to know where there has been either latent or overt hostility to religious folks. Four of the stories came directly from responding congregations.
1. Stuart Circle Parish-Richmond, VA
The Stuart Circle Parish is a group of six churches of different denominations that have come together to provide a meal ministry. It also offers worship, hospitality, pastoral care, in addition to a healthful meal to the urban poor in Richmond. This ministry was motivated in direct response to the Biblical New Testament mandate of Matthew 25 where Jesus admonitions to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Jesus said, " I was hungry and you gave me something to eat....")
This ministry operated for almost 15 years in one of the parishes. When it grew, as the numbers of the poor grew, it was decided to move the program to another of the member churches. It was at that time the Parish ran up against a City Zoning Administrator who interpreted the program to be in violation of the City's zoning ordinance which limits feeding and housing programs for homeless provided by churches to no more than 30 homeless individuals for up to seven days between the months of April and October. Since the hungry do not automatically stop being hungry between November and March, the Parish did not want to be limited in its Biblical Calling of ministry to the hungry..
The zoning guidelines would force the Parish to move the program around to all its member churches and it would still be not be able to offer meals on anywhere near the number of days necessary. Moving the feeding program around would also keep the hungry guessing as to were to go for food on at any given time.
This ordinance was aimed at religious organizations engaged in this clearly religious activity. The City's justification was limited to responding to complaints about the behavior of attenders (unruly behavior, public urination, and noise in the area), although the City was unable to establish where or when these acts had taken place.
The Parish had to go to civil court to protect its first Amendment rights. Had it not been for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act which was in effect in 1996 when this case arose, the feeding program would have been shut down. This program was the fulfilment of a central tenet in the Parish's religious belief and practice. So many of our congregations that choose to stay in the cities do so in order to fulfil this central theological mandate of service. They do not want to abandon the poor nor do they want the political establishment to force them to abandon the poor.
Stuart Circle Parish v. Board of Zoning Appeals of the City of Richmond, No. CIV. A.3:96CV930
2. Palo Cristi Presbyterian Church; Paradise Valley, Arizona; 193 members.
Palo Christi was described as a church literally located in the middle of the desert. The church wanted to construct a "beach volleyball court" on one side of the church's property for the use of the church's youth groups. The only materials the church needed to construct the court were a volleyball net, sand, and railroad ties to surround the court and keep the sand in place. The proposed site of the court was near the church's property line with the adjoining property being the backyard of a residence.
In Paradise Valley, churches must obtain a "special use permit" in order to use the church grounds for means beyond that which would ordinarily be expected of a church. Consequently, Palo Christi had to obtain a special use permit in order to erect its volleyball court. However, the resident whose backyard adjoined the church's property at the point closest to the proposed site of the volleyball court objected to the construction of the court. The resident was concerned that the noise coming from the volleyball court would keep him awake at night. In an attempt to appease its neighbor, the church promised to not light the volleyball court and also promised that no games would occur after nightfall. However, these concessions were not sufficient for the neighbor as he stated that he was often on call at night and thus slept during the day.
When Palo Christi applied for the special use permit, the resident owner of the adjoining property voiced his objection. In Paradise Valley, residential desire, regardless of how minimal, takes precedent over the church's desired use of land even when the church is willing to make concessions. Thus, based on the objections of this one neighbor, Palo Christi's application for a special use permit was denied. At the present, the church still is without a volleyball court and one less ministry to the youth of that congregation and the surrounding community.
3. Chester Presbyterian Church; Chester, Virginia; 728 members.
Chester Presbyterian owns a vacant, adjoining lot which faces on a street shared by fourteen residences. The vacant lot is under a covenant agreement stating that the lot cannot be used for anything other than a house without the approval of fifty percent of the other homeowners on the street. The purpose of the covenant agreement was to prevent a business from locating in an otherwise residential area.
Several years ago, Chester Presbyterian needed to expand its parking lot and wanted to use the vacant lot as a part of its expansion. The church sought the approval of the homeowners to pave the lot, but less than fifty percent of the homeowners gave their approval. Despite the church's attempts to negotiate with the homeowners, the homeowners refused to relent. Chester Presbyterian did expand its parking lot to the extent that it could without infringing upon the vacant lot.
Chester Presbyterian is presently extending its Fellowship Hall. The parking situation is as bad as it has ever been. Once again, the church contacted the homeowners about the possibility of expanding its parking lot into the vacant lot, but the majority of the homeowners again refused to give their approval. Chester Presbyterian went to court over the use of the lot and also pursued remedies with the city. However, all of the church's attempts were for naught. Presently, the lot still sits vacant, and the church's parking problems remain.
4. Bay Presbyterian Church; Bay Village, Ohio; 2195 members.
Bay Presbyterian Church is a very large church both in terms of its membership and its church grounds. The church continues to grow and has occasionally acquired surrounding lands when necessary for the planning of future growth. Recently, Bay Presbyterian completed a 40,000 square foot, four million dollar expansion. Although several homeowners in the surrounding community protested such an expansion, the city grudgingly allowed the expansion to occur.
A few years ago, the city debated whether or not to propose an amendment to the city's Constitution that would require a church, in addition to nursing homes and libraries, to have any proposed expansion approved by a city-wide referendum. The cost of the referendum would be borne by the group wishing to expand and would undoubtedly cost the group thousands of dollars before expansion could begin-- assuming expansion was even approved. Although this debated amendment would have impacted all churches, nursing homes, and libraries, the amendment was primarily considered a way to alleviate the city's growing concern about the size and growth of Bay Presbyterian. While the amendment was never enacted or voted upon, the city is once again considering such an amendment in light of Bay Presbyterian's latest expansion and the church's growing need for another expansion project. Thus, Bay Presbyterian is deeply concerned about the impact such an amendment could have on its ability to minister to its members.
5. First Presbyterian Church; Berkeley, California; 1455 members.
First Presbyterian Church is a relatively large church whose problem pertains to a church-owned building located on its grounds. The building was originally built in approximately 1923 to serve as a school. Over the years, the 9,400 square foot building served various purposes before ultimately being transformed into twelve individual apartments. In 1983, First Presbyterian elected to purchase the building since the church property surrounded the building on all sides. First Presbyterian continued to use the building as rental housing by making the apartments available to low-income families. However, due to the building's advanced age, its condition soon degenerated to the point that it was no longer suitable for occupation nor desirable for any other use. Consequently, First Presbyterian desired to have the building demolished.
The City of Berkeley was upset over the church's desire to have the building demolished because the city did not want to lose any rental housing. Although Berkeley pursued some possible avenues by which it could prevent the church from eliminating the apartments, the city could not find any possibilities that would work. Thus, First Presbyterian ended its use of the building as apartments and prepared to demolish it. However, while the City of Berkeley was unable to find a means by which to prevent the church from eliminating the apartments, it was able to prevent the church from having the building demolished by having the building landmarked based upon its construction circa 1923.
Since the building has been landmarked, First Presbyterian is unable to demolish it even though the building is an "eyesore" in the middle of the church's property. As the building has continued to age, it is now completely unfit for any purpose. It has all windows and doors boarded shut. It would cost approximately one million dollars to return it to a useable condition and considerably more to return it to a desirable condition.
The City of Berkeley has a 1994 law which states that the city cannot landmark a church building without the church's consent. The building on First Presbyterian's grounds was officially landmarked after 1994. The City has declared that its actual landmarking was effective before 1994 and that the 1994 law, requiring the church's consent to be landmarked, cannot be applied retroactively. Thus, First Presbyterian is still unable to have the building demolished despite the current law which would support its position.
First Presbyterian ultimately sued the City of Berkeley over this dilemma in California Superior Court and was victorious. However, the City appealed to the Appellate Court which overruled the trial court and found in favor of the City. Although First Presbyterian felt confident that they had strong grounds for appeal to the California Supreme Court, the ongoing expense of the legal battle was more than the church could bear. Therefore, the church did not appeal. After approximately three years of battle, First Presbyterian estimates its direct costs at approximately $170,000 with total costs somewhere between $750,000 and $1,000,000.
Presently, First Presbyterian is still battling with the City of Berkeley, and the unused building remains standing on the church grounds.
The legal cost of these challenges to congregations and ministries, robs a congregation of resources they might otherwise have used for the benefit of church or community programs. The $170,000 spent by First Presbyterian Church in Berkeley , could have covered the tuition, room, board and student fees for 26 African American students at Johnson C. Smith University, in Charlotte, N.C.. The $170,000 could have paid for six or seven mission co-workers to go overseas were teaching or medical personnel are badly needed. It really hurts me to learn that mission money is going for legal fees and court battles.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a well established denomination with over 200 years in this country. We just had our 209th General Assembly meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. That is why it surprises many people that even PC(USA) congregations would experience such difficulties. It is even more surprising given that we are perhaps "over represented" in local governments (like zoning boards and city councils) in comparison to our percentage in the general population. In addition, about 10 percent of the U.S. Congress is Presbyterian. I have often said the " P" in Presbyterian must stand for politics. That being the case, the fact that we are in so many places where decisions are made-we are still having trouble advancing our ministries. Even as an established Church, we have encountered regulations that would deny the fulfillment of our ministries. This gives further credence to the complexity of these concerns and demonstrates why we need passage of HR 4019. We can only surmise what must be happening to smaller denominational churches and minority faiths.
In a 1995 Presbyterian Panel Survey, another information gathering instrument of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we found that many Presbyterians are politically involved. The survey found that over 70 percent of Presbyterian members either strongly agree or agree that "it is important for Presbyterians to exercise their Christian witness in the public arena." The survey found that 64 percent of church members actively participate in election campaigns and 69 percent write letters to elected officials. This is a direct out growth of our understanding of the Gospel message, to be involved with community through our churches; through our businesses and through the political process in order to do what needs to be done during times of societal decision making and need.
I want to thank you for this opportunity to share these concerns. We would be happy to provide additional information if needed.