A proposed package of zoning regulations regarding the accessory uses of churches, synagogues and other religious institutions ran into vociferous opposition at a public hearing before the Saint Paul Planning Commission on October 29. More than 50 people turned out for the hearing. Many of them were representatives of the city’s faith-based organizations. They largely agreed that the regulations were too broad and would infringe on their community services and free exercise of religion.

Among those testifying were representatives of Lumen Christi Catholic Church in Highland Park and Fairmount Avenue United Methodist Church and CityLife Church in Macalester-Groveland. Brian Alton, a representative of Interfaith Action of Greater Saint Paul and a former chair of the Planning Commission, said he was willing to meet with city staff and work out a new proposal.

One of the regulations would have greatly restricted an institution’s ability to expand its facilities for accessory uses. Several faith leaders said that would hinder the accommodation of everything from wedding and funeral receptions to sports activities. The provision could also run afoul of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits regulations that place a substantial burden on religious exercise.

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“This is just ripe for litigation from beginning to end,” said Joseph Kueppers, chancellor of civil affairs for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, which has 27 parishes in Saint Paul.

“This could easily be seen as just another way for the government to marginalize and suppress minorities,” said the Reverend Joseph Gifford, pastor of Saint Peter Claver Catholic Church. The Summit-University congregation has been working for years on plans to add a senior care facility, new offices, a convent and a school gym.

Imam Asad Zaman, executive director of the Muslim American Society of Minnesota, said Muslim institutions in Saint Paul are relatively new and have not had time to build all of the facilities they need to meet their needs. “Our community needs soup kitchens and battered women’s shelters and workforce training centers,” he said.

Following the hearing, city officials dropped the restrictions on expansions at the recommendation of the City Attorney’s Office.

Some speakers said it was difficult to figure out just what was and was not allowed under the regulations. “Honestly, I have a law degree from Stanford and I’m confused,” said Ethan Roberts, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for Minnesota and the Dakotas. 

Objections were made to a prohibition on new “social and community services” of more than 1,000 square feet without a conditional use permit. Capping overnight shelters to no more than 10 adults and the minor children in their care was also opposed. Project Home, an overnight shelter for homeless families, which has been housed in churches and synagogues for many years, typically has more than 10 adults, according to Alton. He suggested a maximum of 25 people.

David Mennicke of Concordia University-Saint Paul said the proposal does not make clear whether or not faith-based colleges and universities fall under the regulations.

“This is just ripe for litigation from beginning to end,” said Joseph Kueppers, chancellor of civil affairs for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, which has 27 parishes in Saint Paul.

The proposed zoning regulations were triggered by a court battle over the operation of a drop-in day shelter for homeless people at First Lutheran Church in Dayton’s Bluff. Listening House moved into the church several years ago with the approval of city staff. When neighbors objected, the city-imposed a host of operating conditions, and Listening House sued. The case was settled in 2019 with Listening House remaining at the church and the city facing a court order to draft new zoning regulations for accessory uses at faith-based institutions.

Faith leaders offered to help city staff draft the new regulations, but the city is up against a deadline of February 1, 2022, to have the regulations in place and that does not leave much time, according to principal city planner Bill Dermody.

— Jane McClure


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