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ACLU News Wire -- 09/11/96: ACLU Pledges to Back Church in a Zoning Battle

September 11, 1996: ACLU Pledges to Back Church in a Zoning Battle

RICHMOND -- The American Civil Liberties Union wants Richmond officials to reconsider their decision to close a Sunday meal program for the homeless at a local church here because of zoning violations, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Kent Willis, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia, said that denying First English Evangelical Lutheran Church the right to feed the poor is a violation of the free-exercise clause of the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Act of 1993.

If the city does not rescind the zoning violation notice, Willis told the Times-Dispatch, the ACLU is prepared to take legal action. And in a letter to Richmond's zoning administrator, Willis said that he was writing to "remind you that the right of a church to perform a core function of its religious mission is protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993."

The meal program brings 60 to 100 people in the Richmond neighborhood of Fan District each Sunday -- far less than than the number of churchgoers who flood the neighborhood on Sunday mornings.

"Under current law, in order for the government to curtail a religious activity by an individual or an institution, it must be able to demonstrate that a compelling governmental interest is threatened by allowing the activity to continue," Willis said. "That is, in order to shut down the feeding program at First English Lutheran Church, the City of Richmond must first prove that the program is a substantial threat to public safety, peace and order."

In the newspaper interview, Willis called the meal program "fundamental to the purpose of the church" and said recent court decisions provide an encouraging legal precedent. "Clearly," he said, "the city did not study this."

Copyright 1996, The American Civil Liberties Union

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