Great Lakes Society v. Georgetown Township, Mich.
10/30/2008: S&G Client Great Lakes Society vindicated by Michigan Court of Appeals in landmark case challenging a township’s determination that a non-mainstream church was “not a church”
Already over half a century ago, the Court of Appeals of New York handed down an often cited summary of what constitutes a church in contemporary society: “A church is more than merely an edifice affording people the opportunity to worship God. Strictly religious uses and activities are more than prayer and sacrifice and all churches recognize that the area of their responsibility is broader than leading the congregation in prayer. Churches have always developed social groups for adults and youth where the fellowship of the congregation is strengthened with the result that the parent church is strengthened . . .”
Read the opinion here. Now that the township’s wrongful determination has been corrected, the Great Lakes Society’s pursuit of legal remedy continues.
03/09/2008: Michigan church petitions Supreme Court for review
But what constitutes a "substantial burden" is up for debate, said Roman Storzer, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer with his own firm that represents religious groups across the country. "Churches and mosques and synagogues occupy a special place in our society," he said. "When you have disasters or there is a need, they open their doors. They provide social services to the needy, and they are a great benefit to society. In return, for many, many decades, municipalities have reciprocated by granting them leeway in regard to zoning issues."
But the climate regarding development has changed. Today, "people are opposed to development of any kind near them," Storzer said. The law [RLUIPA], he said, gives religious communities an opportunity to challenge zoning decisions and requires municipalities to "give a real reason for the denial."
Higher power: Okemos church case heads to top U.S. court, Kathleen Lavey, Lansing State Journal.
08/07/2007: Court decision upholds right to build church
Thus, the Society won the right to build its church, as it originally envisioned, on its land despite the Township's best (and illegal) efforts to block its construction. Speaking more broadly, the judge upheld the constitutional principle that believers, not bureaucrats, get to decide what their church is supposed to look like.
Court decision upholds right to build church, Roger Severino, Grand Valley Advance (Aug. 7, 2007) (letter to the editor).
Read about the Great Lakes Society's RLUIPA victory here and here.
07/26/2007: Judge sides with allergen-free church
In a recent opinion, Ottawa County Circuit Judge Calvin Bosman agreed the township violated the church's religious freedom under the Constitution and a Religious Land Use Act signed into law in 2000 by then-President Clinton. "Judge Bosman has done a great deal to help us rebuild our reputation," [Pastor John] Cheetham said. "He acknowledged that we were trying to build a special building to cater to people with chemical sensitivity. For us, it's an important part of Christ's mission ... to recognize the special needs of people."
Bosman ruled the proposed building qualifies as a church because people would gather there to worship. The township's opposition obstructs the church's religious freedom, he wrote. "There is no dispute that the members of (the society) are physically unable to attend worship services in any conventional church," Bosman wrote. "The (township's) action effectively prevents the members ... from worshipping at all.
Judge sides with allergen-free church, Matt Vande Bunte, Grand Rapids Press (July 26, 2007): Reporting on S&G client Great Lakes Society's First Amendment, Equal Protection & RLUIPA victory against Georgetown Township, Michigan. Read the story here
Lead Counsel Roman Storzer, who argued the case on June 14, is joined by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and John Karafa of the firm McCroskey, Feldman, Cochrane & Brock, P.L.C. Read The Becket Fund's Press Release here