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Ground Zero Mosque: Zoning Laws Stifling Religious Liberty?

By Daniel T. Zanoza

With the controversy surrounding the construction of an Islamic mosque near Ground Zero in New York, a myth is being perpetuated on the American people by those who have an anti-faith agenda. Many liberals are critical of those who oppose an Islamic place of worship being built so close to the site where nearly 3,000 people were murdered on September 11, 2001. Americans believe the proposed mosque demonstrates insensitivity by some who practice the Islamic faith. So a new term has been coined by the left, and it's called Islamaphobia. 

The truth of the matter is radical members of the Islamic faith flew the two jumbo jets into the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. However, the far left is advancing the notion that so-called moderate members of Islam are under attack by a majority of the American public. In reality, it is Christian and Jewish places of worship which have been targeted in recent years by many government municipalities as well. 

I believe the situation in New York is being used as a straw man by many factions, in order to advance their own political agendas. 

The facts are those who embrace the Islamic faith have a constitutional right to build a mosque near the Ground Zero site. At the same time, those who oppose the construction of a center for Islamic worship have a legitimate argument which involves sensitivity for those who lost family members and loved ones on that dreadful day from a nation which had not experienced such a shock since the attack on Pearl Harbor. It is a very complex issue, but I learned a great deal more about the fact all places of worship, no matter what the faith, are being challenged by the government when it comes to the maintenance or building of churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc.--both old and new--across the United States.

For years, many store-front churches in African-American communities have been fighting legal battles to keep their doors open. These churches are often located on major thoroughfares in inner-city neighborhoods. Since such places of worship are tax-exempt, some municipalities would rather see tax-generating businesses take their place. But, as is the case with the controversy over the New York mosque, as always, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. There are those who are painting a very different picture of what's really going on in America today and what's truly important. 

I recently interviewed Richard Mauck, a partner in the Chicago-based law firm of Mauck & Baker. Mauck told me his law firm handles nearly 20 cases a year--representing all faiths--in the battle against a trend which began in the mid-1980's. At that time, many municipalities actively began restricting the construction or use of property for religious purposes. Many of these restrictions were put into place through the use of new zoning laws which, in some cases, were the result of a community seeking more revenue. In other instances, this was a result of hostility towards any and all religious faiths. 

"Today most people drive past 10 or more churches to get to the one they want to go to," said Mauck. "So there's much more choice, but that means that there's not community pressure. In the suburbs, we get lots of churches where maybe 10% of the congregation lives within a particular suburb, 90% live elsewhere. So you have something that's politicized, but they (those who worship at churches, synagogues, etc.) don't have the power." 

Mauck went on to suggest the increase in diversity and the breakdown of community has led to fear which has manifested itself in many ways during the past 25 years. 

"I originated a law in the mid-90's called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) which is federal in nature and was passed with bi-partisan support to give greater rights to religious groups." added Mauck. "RLUIPA is designed to protect the rights of churches and other groups in zoning ... " 

"There is a convergence of trends that sort of made for the perfect storm getting worse. Trend number one was more restricting land use in general. Municipalities began making their zoning codes tighter and tighter, not just to restrict people from harmful uses to others, but to try and make people use their land to benefit the entire community. It's a different concept. Instead of don't use your land to harm me, it's use your land to make my land more profitable." 

"The next trend, there are more and more churches (synagogues, temples, etc.). In the one sense, everyone wants their own church (place of worship) ... there are fast-growing minority churches which burst onto the scene and you had this proliferation of people needing to have a place to worship." 

Mauck went on to say the third trend has to do with mobility. Most people walked to their place of worship in the past within their own community and that is no longer the case. The automobile has changed out society and culture, according to Mauck, which has led to some of the things that are happening now. 

What I took away from my interview with Mauck is that Christians and people of all faiths need to be aware that a no longer welcome sign is permeating the modus operandi in our government, as far as places of religious worship. Some of this is a result of greater diversity in our culture. But, in some circumstances, this situation stems from a clear and present hostility towards those who believe in something greater than themselves.

Subsequently, the firestorm surrounding the mosque near New York's Ground Zero is a good thing in my opinion because it has shed light on a greater issue that involves the government's growing intolerance for religion, not the tolerance of Americans. 

Mauck also told me, by far, Christians have faced the most opposition from municipalities. The explosion of Pentecostal, non-denominational and other Christian denominations has led to a knee jerk reaction from many communities. The "one size fits all" model no longer is the case, due to many of the factors Mauck addressed above. Therefore, those of us who believe in God must be careful in the rush to choose sides in what is undoubtedly a complicated debate. 

Daniel T. Zanoza, 56, is a free lance journalist and political analyst. He has a degree in political science and social work. Zanoza formed RFFM.orgnearly twenty years ago, in an attempt to encourage fair coverage of political and social issues in the mainstream media which are important to pro-family conservatives. Zanoza often works behind the scenes with journalists in a non-confrontational manner to achieve this goal.


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