Church Kept Out Village’s Downtown Wins in Court

Apart from its Canton congregation, the Christian Fellowship Center holds services in Madrid. (Photo via cfconline.org)

ALBANY, N.Y. (CN) — Less than 20 miles from the St. Lawrence River separating the state from Canada, a New York village is under fire for prohibiting houses of worship in its business district.

Christian Fellowship Centers of New York initiated the challenge here last year after Canton officials refused to issue a certificate of occupancy that would allow the church to hold worship services in a former restaurant it bought last summer.

Canton does not stop nonprofits from using downtown properties to hold meetings of a secular nature, however, and the church argued that its treatment violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn granted the church an injunction Friday, disagreeing with Canton that its zoning laws serve a justifiable commercial purpose.

“Indeed, there is no reason to believe that ‘fraternal’, ‘social’ or ‘philanthropic’ gatherings would be any more likely to generate commerce, contribute to tax revenues, or (with the exception perhaps of government buildings) be more open to the public than religious services,” Kahn wrote.

Canton also failed defend its law on the basis of the Alcohol Beverage Control Law, a state law that says churches cannot operate within 200 feet of bars or liquor stores. 

“Even if the Village had compelling interests in putting some number of liquor outlets downtown and in separating them by 200-feet from churches — there is no evidence that the downtown area is too small to accommodate the desired mass of new bars along with churches and their protective zones,” the 28-page opinion states. 

Canton argued that, because it allowed the church to use the building as office space, and the church has other places to hold worship services, the church can not suffer irreparable harm. 

But this argument likewise failed to sway Kahn.

Noting the church’s claim that additional worship spaces are “inadequate to serve its sincere religious needs,” Kahn found that the violation to the church’s rights require a preliminary injunction. 

Representatives for the church and the state have not responded to emails seeking comment.

In its complaint, Christian Fellowship Centers of New York noted that its ministry grew out a converted chicken coop near Ogdensburg.

From 1974 when it was founded, the church now has five locations in New York and 34 members. After its lease from another local church expired last year, the Canton congregation has been renting space at the Best Western Hotel for weekly services. It averages 82 attendees each Sunday.

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