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Mississippi church challenges city zoning ordinance

The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website] on Wednesday heard arguments in the challenge brought by a Mississippi church against a municipal ordinance that bans churches from the city's town square. The Opulent Life Church [official website], a Southern Baptist congregation of 18 members, sought a a preliminary injunction via a lawsuit initially filed against the city of Holly Springs in January with the aid of the Liberty Institute [advocacy website]. The church alleged [ABC report] that the city's ban is intended to prevent churches, which do not bring in tax money, from taking up valuable land. The US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi [official website] ruled in favor of the city but the church appealed the decision, stating that the ordinance, which requires churches to get approval of 60 percent of local property owners and the city's mayor before it can move to the downtown area, violates the First Amendment [Cornell LII backgrounder] and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) [42 USC § 2000cc]. The RLUIPA allows churches and other religious institutions to avoid burdensome zoning law restrictions on their property use and requires towns to treat religious institutions as they would other businesses. The church originally planned to argue that the ordinance discriminates against religious institutions because the 60 percent requirement is not imposed on other businesses and nonprofit organizations such as museums, post offices and social clubs. However, a day before the hearing the city amended the ordinance by completely banning churches from the town square, noting that the town is trying to develop businesses on the square. The city argued that the new ordinance is constitutional, in contrast to the previous law, which the city acknowledged to be unconstitutional.

Religious freedom is an issue throughout the world. Last month the US Department of State (DOS) [official website] released [JURIST report] its annual International Religious Freedom Report [materials] documenting threats to religious freedom around the globe. The report detailed current international threats to religious liberty, especially laws that punish religious traditions and blasphemy laws that are often used to punish religious tolerance. In June a German court ruled [JURIST report] that circumcising young boys based on religious traditions is prohibited even if the parents consent to the procedure. In March a UN expert urged states to refrain from using official state religions [JURIST report] as a means to enhance their national identity politics, "as this may have detrimental effects for the situation of individuals from minority communities." Last August Hungarian churches challenged a law [JURIST report] that officially recognized only 14 of the 358 religious groups in the country.

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