Town tries to 'snob-zone' God by banning prayer meetings in home

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For release: December 29, 2000

Town tries to 'snob-zone' God by
banning prayer meetings in home

WASHINGTON, DC -- A town in Connecticut that has banned a family from holding prayer meetings in its home is improperly using zoning laws to squash religious liberty, the Libertarian Party charged today.

"No American town should be able to snob-zone God out of existence," said the party's national director, Steve Dasbach. "If zoning laws can be used as an excuse to ban organized prayer in a private home, then the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty doesn't, well, have a prayer."

In late November, the New Milford Zoning Commission ordered Robert and Mary Murphy to immediately stop holding weekly prayer meetings and Bible studies in their single-family home.

The Murphys had been conducting the meetings -- which were attended by two dozen or fewer people -- since 1995. But the Zoning Commission said it had determined that such gatherings were prohibited under the town's zoning laws, and threatened to take legal action against the Murphys if the meetings did not stop.

In December, the American Center for Law and Justice filed a lawsuit against the Milford town government, charging that the action violated the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments -- and infringed on the Murphys' constitutional rights of free speech, religious expression, and freedom of assembly.

However, American families shouldn't need lawsuits to protect their right to pray in their own homes, said Dasbach.

"In America, you should have the absolute right to pray in your own home, and to invite your neighbors over to share in your prayers, without having to get permission from local government bureaucrats," he said. "In fact, a zoning board should have no more control over when and where you pray than they should over which God you pray to.

"The only exception to that rule would be if the prayer meeting directly infringed on the property rights of the Murphys' neighbors -- and that does not seem to be the case here."

Unfortunately, the incident in New Milford is just one more example of how local zoning boards try to micromanage peoples' property, said Dasbach. Some other zoning law outrages over the past few years:

* Highland Park, New Jersey fined a rabbi for having a typewriter in his home. (It violated a ban on home offices.)

* Floosmoor, Illinois banned pickup trucks from private driveways.

* Alexandria, Virginia threatened to condemn 22 homes unless the owners fixed chipped paint on their windowsills and doorframes.

* Coral Gables, Florida mandated Spanish tiles for the roofs of any children's playhouses in families' backyards.

* Laguna Beach, California prohibited a family from moving into their new home because it was painted the wrong shade of white. The city also prosecuted a woman for building a picket fence that was six inches too high.

In each case, the problem is the same, said Dasbach: Zoning laws gave local government bureaucrats vast power over homes and properties -- and that power was inevitably used to violate peoples' rights.

"The problem is not that zoning boards abuse their power; it's that they have the power to abuse," he said. "As long as these bureaucrats have such power, incidents like the one in New Milford are bound to occur."

What's the solution?

"Take away zoning boards' power to micromanage the use of private property," suggested Dasbach. "That would strip them of their power to violate property rights -- and their power to violate people's religious liberty. Then, no American would ever be banned from practicing religion in the privacy of their home, as happened in New Milford.

"The fact is, the power of local zoning bureaucrats should never be stronger than the right of private property, the power of the U.S. Constitution, or the importance of prayer in people's hearts."

The Colorado Freedom