Part 2: A Proactive Solution?
In our last blog post on this topic, we discussed the increasingly complex relationship between faith communities and local governments: allies in seeking the common welfare of the community, adversaries on property tax policy, and on land use policy, a little of both. Across the country, local governments, driven by their own financial needs, have begun to look for other sources of revenue. Seeing faith communities as low-hanging financial fruit, they are “creatively” using land use and property tax policy to put the squeeze on churches, mosques, synagogues, and other houses of worship.
Meanwhile, faith communities are feeling the proverbial turnip, whose blood is being squeezed out. Most of us are not rich megachurches but smaller congregations who operate on a very thin margin. On the one hand, we can’t afford the additional costs forced upon us in the name of land use policy. But on the other hand, few of us can afford the lawyers and court costs it would to force local government to respect our rights under federal law. Nor do we want to make local enemies or spoil the cooperative efforts with local governments that we have spent years to build. It was a no-win situation, and it left us feeling like we were caught between a rock and hard place.
It felt like a pretty desperate place. But about a year and a half ago we began to seek a way out of the bind without having to sue. Several members of the Religious Land use Working Group, which I co-chair, decided to go to take a visit to the Justice Department to see if we might find release under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).
We did not understand every bit of legalese spoken in the meeting. But we came out much clearer understanding of the law than we went in with. But more importantly, we departed with an idea for a middle way between rolling over or playing dead, and suing local government: a forum that would bring the county’s faith leaders and officials all together in one place. At that forum, the Department of Justice’s special counsel for religious discrimination would explain to those present the rights of faith communities and the responsibilities of local governments under RLUIPA. Everybody would know the truth about RLUIPA, and knowing that truth would set everyone free. Hundreds of faith community leaders and their congregations would be empowered by knowing their rights and how to petition for the redress of those rights, if validated. The county officials present would have greater clarity about what they can and cannot impose on religious groups in the name of land use policy.
The event was held on September 7, 2016, in a civic center which all considered neutral ground. The special counsel spoke for 45 minutes about rights, responsibilities, and best practices. This was followed by a 30-minute question and answer period, curated by the co-chairs of the Religious Land Use Working Group, in which faith leaders posed questions, the special counsel answered them, and the county officials observed. More than 80 people attended: a dozen county officials and more than 70 faith leaders.
It produced an interesting dynamic among the faith leaders. Most of them came knowing little about RLUIPA and feeling like they were alone in their struggle with local government agencies. Now each faith leader knew their rights. And they knew that 70 other faith leaders knew their right and had experienced similar problems. And they knew that the local agency representative now knew the rights of faith communities. And they could see the looks of astonishment on the faces of several of the agency representatives that so many faith community people came to the forum. So the faith leaders felt much more empowered on the way out than they did before they arrived. And much less alone as well.
Will it work? Will it lift the excessive burden we have felt for so long? That remains to be seen. After all, it took decades to rise to the level it had. None of the organizers believe that a single 2½-hour forum would solve every problem. Our guess is that a lot more negotiating needs to happen before things get significantly better.
But the difference is: now there is hope!