Is Freedom of Religion and Assembly In Danger? Check Out Your Local Civic Organization

The Liberal Ironist is angry.  The time is just after 5:00 pm, this past Monday, June 18th.  The place is Brookhaven Town Hall in Farmingville, NY, the seat of government of a very large Northeastern township.  The Brookhaven Planning Board was in session in the auditorium.  Item #6, the 4th scheduled public hearing on a site plan, was up: The proposed Long Island Chinese Baptist Church at Centereach.  The architect makes a brief presentation on the proposed church to be built on the current site of a small 1,300 square-foot house on a 2.5-acre lot.  The area is a sparsely-populated neighborhood in Centereach, a large suburb of New York City.  The proposal is for the creation of a church shaped like a Romanesque cross, facing east in accordance with Feng Shui principles.  Total parking for 49 cars, maximum occupancy in the sanctuary space of 140.  The property would be re-vegetated so that less than an acre (under 40%) would be cleared.  The current congregation, as the name of the proposed church suggests, is composed of Chinese Baptists.  This congregation is still a small one, meeting in another church’s worship space several hamlets to the west.  There are 50 regular adult and 15 child congregants, and a total of 20 attendees of the weekend religious school.  As he finishes with the background information and presentation, the Chairman of the Planning Board asked the architect if he or the congregation had made any effort to reach out to the community about the proposal.  He says “I approached the Centereach Civic Association several times over the past few weeks…I recently emailed the Civic Association.  At no point did I receive a reply.  All I got for my trouble was a computer virus.”  (At this point a few people from a group of about 1/2 a dozen sitting directly behind the architect and a congregation representative smile contemptuously and shake their heads.  Some Concerned Citizens have shown up to the Planning Board meeting.)

Oxhead Road runs roughly north and south through the middle of this image of a wooded neighborhood in Centereach. The large building with the orange roof in the lower-middle is the local elementary school; immediately to the north of it, on the west side of Oxhead Road, is the 2.5-acre lot where a 65-member Chinese Baptist congregation wants to build a church. The church’s immediate neighbors gathered together–to attack the project. Image from Google Earth, dated March 6, 2012.

The charges of cyberwarfare against a civic organization being outside of his jurisdiction (and most inexpedient to follow-up on), the Chairman of the Planning Board then asks if any members of the community wish to speak on the proposal to build the new church.  Oh my, do they ever.  Only 5 neighbors of the proposed church have turned-out to speak, but none of them came out to welcome a new church congregation to their neighborhood.  (Who would bother with such a thing?)  They have come to protest the construction of a church on this site.  The underlying zoning on this site is agricultural, 1 speaker says; why is it being changed to permit a church?  (I happen to know that “agricultural” isn’t even a zoning category in the current Brookhaven zoning code!)  The proposed building site is currently in a residential zoning district, another says; why is an essentially commercial use being permitted on the site?  (At least this speaker correctly notes the site’s A Residence 2, or 2-acre residential lots zoning category, but she like the previous doesn’t realize that under Brookhaven’s zoning code, all residential zones allowing traditional single-family suburban houses also permit “Churches or similar places of worship and parish houses” as an as-of-right use.)  1 speaker objects to the small 1,300 square-foot house currently on the property while calling on the Planning Board to deny the proposal to build the church on the lot.  (This is particularly strange, since the house would be torn-down to make way for the church, a newer structure that would be built following the opportunity for community input.)  Several speakers protest of the current landowner’s unauthorized clear-cutting of a large area of the property–way back in 2008, and which was eventually halted by Brookhaven code enforcement.  (This is a legitimate grievance under Brookhaven’s environmental regulations, but a particularly strange issue for them to raise amidst their objections to the construction of the church, as the Chinese Baptist congregation in question wasn’t responsible for the clearing of the land, and proposed to re-vegetate some of the lot to ensure separation of church activities from the secluded homes of that neighborhood.)  More than 1 speaker objects to the construction of a church on this road, arguing that it can’t handle the traffic volume.  (Simply-put, this is ludicrous; Oxhead Road is a “double-line road,” a local thoroughfare which runs from Route 25 to just south of Nicolls Road, thereby linking the 2 most-important highways in Centereach.)  Hilariously, 1 of the speakers even notes the elementary school attended by hundreds of students that exists immediately to the south of the church property, claiming that the traffic from the new church congregation would surely conflict with the operations of that school.  The architect, speaking on behalf of the congregation’s representative (who is clearly not accustomed to the confrontation style of these meetings), notes that the church school’s activities would be held on Friday nights and Saturdays, times at which the elementary school in question would almost always be closed.  He repeats, lest there be any confusion, that the church school has only 20 total members.  He also briefly reminds these Concerned Citizens that the full congregation would meet on Sundays or traditional Christian holidays, when the elementary school would be closed.  All these points he addresses gracefully, declining to draw attention to their sheer idiocy.

There is 1 point–just 1–which he singles-out for its objectionable nature: 1 of the last speakers says he had read an online website–He didn’t even trouble himself to obtain his information from the US Census Bureau!–and notes Centereach had a very small Asian population, and that merely 3% of the local Asian population was Christian; he used these figures to argue that there was little need for this church to be built at all.

Architect’s rendering of the proposed Chinese Baptist Church at Centereach, which would be built on the site of an illegally-cleared lot which currently accommodates a very small rental house. I can see how the change would be jarring…

The Liberal Ironist would like to specifically note a certain fairly-popular foundational provision of our law called the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Law-abiding members of a religious congregation, provided they comply with standard dimensional requirements of the municipal zoning code, have the right to build for themselves a house of worship almost anywhere they damn well please.  Brookhaven’s zoning code lists this as an as-of-right use, right at the top; all zoning codes should.

The architect identifies Stony Brook, a fairly-large hamlet just to the northwest of Centereach, as home of many of the church’s congregants–and the nearby SUNY Stony Brook campus as having a very large domestic and foreign Chinese student population, some of whom are Christian and looking for a place where they can worship.  He notes the strangeness of the “How many Asian Christians can there be?” comment, and calls the speaker’s motives into question.

He was right to do so.  We are ill-served by John Rawls‘ concept of “public reason,” through which he calls on all people making political claims to do so on supposedly-neutral terms of scientific objectivity.  This implies that religious objectors to women’s reproductive rights or gay rights, for example, must reason on “publicly-accessible” terms or not at all–for public argument’s sake, that legalization of abortion or gay marriage has some harmful effect upon society or the public interest.  Or somesuch.  (Witness the comedy of a lawyer representing 1 of those “marriage defense” organizations in California being asked directly by a judge hearing his case against gay marriage if he can explain the harmful social effects of allowing gay couples to marry–and drawing a blank.)

These arguments–in truth believed neither by the dogmatic religious Conservatives making them nor the untrusting secular Liberals to whom they are in principle addressed–simply muddy the water.  True, speculation about a political opponent’s motives can do just as much to muddy the waters, undermine dialogue and even desensitize us to the charge through continued and hyperbolic use.  But we risk serving the interests of underhanded bigotry if we allow people to organize around seemingly-neutral issues when we know damn well what motivates them.

Some of these Concerned Citizens may well have turned-out to oppose a construction project which they believed–in their ignorance–to require commercial zoning in their residential neighborhood, in violation of the underlying A Residence 2 zoning.  If so, the Liberal Ironist sees a rich illiberal irony in the fact that each of the Concerned Citizens from the adjacent properties happen to live on 1-acre or 1/2-acre lots that couldn’t be built in that neighborhood anymore with the current environmentally-sensitive zoning!  The proposed church, not the existing surrounding houses, is perfectly lawful, in fact well within the size limits permitted by local zoning for that site.

Other Concerned Citizens, the Liberal Ironist has little doubt from this meeting, simply don’t want Chinese people congregating in their neighborhood.  These people abuse the public comment period of the Planning Board’s meeting, intended for the airing of serious concerns about nearby construction projects, in an attempt to enforce their personal bigotry and phobias in their neighborhood.

This is not a novel issue in any way; if anything it is old hat.  The whole controversy over Park 51, an Islamic and interfaith community center built 2 blocks from Ground Zero, referred to inaccurately and provocatively as the “Ground Zero Mosque” by opportunistic rabble-rousers and bigots, included attempts to persuade the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission to prohibit that project on the grounds of demolishing a supposedly historically-significant structure.  (By and large, the parties to the claim of landmark status had no interest in its historic significance; they were just seeking tactical advantage over an Islamic organization they didn’t want to establish itself.)

Do you think I have projected this more high-profile case onto simple community concerns in the local one?  If you believe that I suggest you are unaware of the scope of this problem.  Planning agencies and historic districts, under the influence of civic organizations and at times informal collections of bigots, cite all manner of plausible and implausible concerns in order to oppose religious groups from siting a house of worship in their communities.  Opposition can target any facet of a proposed facility from the amount of parking required to an architectural style such as use of minarets which is suggestive of a religious minority group, and can emerge either because people care less about our common First Amendment rights than about what they want in their neighborhood, or because they don’t like the ideas or the appearance of the congregation in question.  (Good luck separating these 2 “issues” in practice.)

Naturally, public opposition to the activities of religious minority groups is much stronger.  The American Civil Liberties Union has fired over the bow of municipal zoning bodies in particular for violation of the rights of worship and assembly of Muslim groups.  But here in suburban New York, completely unanticipated by yours truly, was an outpouring of angry hostility by Concerned Citizens with their own non-conforming shy-acre lot.  They think they can tell other Americans, immigrants and international students in good standing that they are not welcome in the neighborhood because of its “residential character”–er, aside from the large elementary school adjacent to the property.

Oh, wait–I haven’t finished the story!

1 woman actually protests the removal of this 2.5-acre parcel from the tax rolls–in a school district of about 16 square miles.  This very objection is premised on the idea that the community gets to decide whether you get to build a church.  Consider this: Due to a lack of involvement in the affairs of our own local government, the rest of us have practically abandoned the hard-fought and precious power to comment on the actions of our own government to people who think this way.

1 of the Concerned Citizens accuses the church of not posting a letter notifying her of the public hearing.  The Chairman of the Planning Board asks the architect (who seems to be fielding all questions from all quarters) if notices had been posted to residents near the property in question.  He says they had, and the Chairman asks him to look through all of his certified mail receipts.  This he does, and upon finding it simply avers that the notification letter might simply not have reached her due to an unaccountable hold-up.  Maybe that’s true, and maybe she just lied.  No one else who spoke-out against the plans for the church has cared about the truth while they level so many immaterial grievances.

At the close of the hearing, the Chairman of the Planning Board can see that the many outstanding objections to the church proposal call for another public hearing–for July 16th.  Out of 11 proposals before the Brookhaven Planning Board, only 1 other was assigned a 2nd public hearing in 4 weeks, and 1 turned down.  The other 8 were approved.

Now, with this particular public hearing already over, it gets really heated.  Yours truly stays in the auditorium for the rest of the Planning Board meeting, but I see that the Concerned Citizen who so helpfully pointed out that the local Asian population was small now engages the congregation’s representative–who spoke little–directly.  This conversation does not progress towards mutual respect.  Our Concerned Citizen leans over the congregant, in full view of our appointed officials and other citizen attendees, looking him over with an angry grimace while he talks.  This is someone he has just met, who hasn’t done anything with the property in question yet.  After just a few moments, the angry gesticulations start.  After the 2 walk out of the auditorium, I can just make-out shouting–coming from 1 voice–out in the hall.

As an atheist, the Liberal Ironist can see that one must indeed have the forebearance of a Christian to abide liberal-democratic institutions such as planning boards and public hearings being hijacked by people with private and malicious intent against those who are simply trying to build a community space for like-minded people the way conscientious citizens would.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease; so much of our civil society is dominated by people whom are uncivil and antisocial, using that neutral language of the civic organization as a tool to put others out in the cold.  Again, this is not because we have zoning, planning boards and a political tradition that provides for public hearings, civic organizations and civil discussion; it is simply because we have yielded-up those organizations, and that language, to our most-resentful and selfish neighbors.

The American Civil Liberties Union seeks to inform religious groups–particularly frequently-marginalized religious minority groups–of their rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.  This act, which passed Congress by unanimous content and was signed into law by President Clinton in 2000, reaffirmed in Federal law that municipal zoning regulations may not “impose…a substantial burden” on religious groups seeking to build facilities unless it can demonstrate that this is the least-burdensome way to achieve a compelling public interest.

A friend of mine who also attended this public hearing spoke with spontaneous eloquence afterwards: “It really is shameful when you realize the extent to which we just don’t believe in our rights.  If they are rights, then everyone has them, not just the people we like or agree with.”  The Liberal Ironist would broaden the point, and say we can measure how much we’ve lost our way by whether we define our political objectives entirely on the basis of what is convenient for ourselves.  Ours is a big country, but so many of us see ourselves as lords of the manor.  So many can’t even say “Live and let-live.”

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