The issue is land use, not religious freedom

Comment

November 10, 1996|By BRIAN SULLAM

ONLY IN AMERICA could a zoning issue be recast as a battle over religious freedom.

Much of the debate over Anne Arundel County's bill 93-96 has focused on freedom of worship. The legislation would require the county's administrative hearing officer to conduct a public hearing when a non-profit organization builds a large project in a rural area.

Freedom of religion isn't even in dispute.

Dragging religion into debates about other policy issues is nothing new in America.

Seventy-one years ago, H. L. Mencken pounded out some tart words on his typewriter about the practice of using freedom of religion as a smoke screen. After the notorious Scopes trial, Mr. Mencken wrote the following in an Evening Sun column on Sept. 14, 1925:

'Religious despotism'

"The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from government control but also from public opinion," he wrote. "What we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism."

While those remarks were directed at the conflict over teaching evolution in Tennessee schools, they could apply to the modern-day question of a county coping with development in its rural areas.

While no one is about to argue that the government has a right to interfere with the way people worship, the Constitution's First Amendment does not grant religious organizations the right to build whatever they want wherever they want.

A matter of land use

Local governments have a duty to consider the effect of creating acres of blacktopped parking lots and erecting large buildings, regardless of their purpose. Changing the character of a community has nothing to do with freedom of religion. It has to do with land use.

If congregations keep building "mega-churches" -- that is, sanctuaries that accommodate thousands of worshipers and allow for several hundred cars -- local governments will have to update their zoning codes.

Under Anne Arundel's current law, churches built in rural areas are pretty much exempt from review. Of course, the code did not anticipate the construction of houses of worship as immense as shopping centers.

These large churches appear to be filling a spiritual void that is not about to disappear. In addition, counties such as Anne Arundel -- in or near metropolitan areas with large amounts of undeveloped and relatively cheap land -- are likely to become the future sites of mega-churches. Updating the zoning code to ensure public input and review of these projects is necessary and sensible.

The plan by Riverdale Baptist Church of Prince George's County to build a 110,000-square-foot complex at the intersection of Davidsonville Road and U.S. 50 may have provided the impetus for County Councilman John J. Klocko III's aforementioned legislation, but it is misleading to say the institution was singled out.

As it happens, Riverdale Baptist's is the only development that would be affected. But it is also the only congregation with plans for a mega-church in a rural area.

Of course, it would been better for the legislation to have been in place so that Riverdale Baptist would have known what to expect when it decided to negotiate the purchase of 41 acres of meadows and trees. This situation is another example of how government is often better at reacting than at anticipating issues.

Some might argue that the proposed location, close to a major highway that links Annapolis to Washington, is not so bucolic.

But the scale of this project dwarfs all nearby development. Plans call for a 1,500-seat sanctuary, classrooms and a recreational complex. In addition, the church wants to build a 700-car lot covering several acres.

No matter how you look at it, this kind of development gobbles up lots of open space. The consequences of reducing meadows and woods, increasing water runoff and adding traffic all must be examined. Allowing drastic changes in the environment just because the development is a church would be self-destructive for any community.

Congregation's fears

Members of the Riverdale congregation fear that the Davidsonville residents who oppose their project will use the hearing process to stop the new church.

However, citizen opposition does not necessarily mean a project won't be approved. There have been dozens of contentious zoning hearings in which the opposing faction did not prevail. The county government, however, is better off for holding these hearings and allowing citizens to express themselves.

After all, the First Amendment's provision prohibiting the government from limiting a citizen's freedom of speech is as sacrosanct as the guarantee that allows all of us to worship as we please, free from government interference.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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