March 20, 2019
City Stirs the Pot with Coffee Zoning

City Stirs the Pot with Coffee Zoning

What's brewing at Harbor Hope Coffee? Controversy, thanks to the small town of St. Ignace. The leaders of the Western Michigan city don't want to blend business and religion -- and they're willing to stop a church from buying property to prove it.

Hope Lutheran Church may be small, but it has a big vision. And part of that vision is connecting with the community by opening a new coffee outreach in the business district. That will be tough to do, since St. Ignace turned down their request, arguing that having a church and shop co-exist is somehow a violation of zoning laws. Late last year, the town rejected Hope's application for a property tax exemption, arguing that the shop didn't "align with the city's goals..."

When the church's appeal was turned down by the local zoning board, the congregation sued. "Religious groups should not be discriminated against based upon the religious nature of their land use," said Hope Lutheran's attorney. And he's not the only one who thinks so. The Trump administration is also weighing in on the small-town dispute, arguing that St. Ignace is violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

The Justice Department's Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband issued a statement of interest in the case, telling reporters, "Religious groups in America have the fundamental constitutional right to use land for religious exercise, free from discriminatory restrictions, and to be treated on equal terms with nonreligious groups." In this case, he explained, "Hope is plainly being treated worse than other assemblies and institutions in the [General Business District] by being excluded from a site it wishes to occupy."

Unfortunately, Hope Lutheran's situation is more common than you might think. Churches, home groups, synagogues, Bible studies -- even Native American tribes -- have run smack dab into this local intolerance for religious exercise. But, thanks to the Trump administration, cities that exploit or marginalize faith-based groups will have a lot tougher time of it now. These subtle attacks on religious freedom may seem like small beans to some, but -- as Dreiband points out -- that every case matters. "The Department of Justice will continue to enforce federal civil rights laws protecting religious freedom so that communities across the country can establish and grow their places of worship."