The City Council weighed religious freedom against urban renewal last night and chose the latter, voting for a neighborhood redevelopment plan that prohibits new churches in part of Lauraville's business district.
The council, which was unanimous in a provisional vote on the measure last night, will take final action Oct. 20.
Aimed at storefront churches that have gobbled up commercial space, the plan prohibits new religious institutions on a 2/3 -mile stretch of Harford Road.
"This is not anti-church. This is pro-development," said Jeff Sattler, executive director of Neighborhoods of Greater Lauraville, a nonprofit community development group that supported the plan.
"We have eight churches on a one-mile stretch of road. That's a lot of churches," he said. "If we had eight shoe stores it would be ridiculous."
The plan renews restrictions that have been on the books for four years. No eyebrows were raised in 1999 when the council passed an urban renewal plan that prohibited new storefront churches.
But that plan did so by omission: Religious institutions simply were not included in a list of permitted land uses. The 2003 plan is more specific, listing religious institutions among prohibited uses.
A federal law has come along since 1999 that put those restrictions into question. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act bans land-use regulations that restrict the practice of religion unless there is a "compelling government interest" in doing so.
City Councilman Robert W. Curran, whose district includes Lauraville, said the compelling interest is parking. Surrounding businesses would suffer if congregations took up available spaces, he said.
Churches along the strip contend that they contribute to the community, in part because they draw out-of-towners who patronize nearby merchants before and after services.
City Councilwoman Paula Johnson Branch, who heads the committee overseeing the redevelopment plan, initially said she would remove the church prohibition after the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals questioned whether the limits could be reconciled with federal law.
But she changed her mind after the city's law department found that the plan did not violate the law as long as religious institutions are allowed in other parts of the neighborhood and the city as a whole.
New churches would be prohibited in two-thirds of the Lauraville business district, a stretch of Harford Road from Argonne Drive to Echodale Avenue. The plan does not affect existing churches and allows new ones in the remaining third of the district.