In the face of overwhelming opposition by faith-based institutions, the Saint Paul Planning Commission has revised a proposed package of zoning regulations that would have restricted a broad spectrum of programs and services by religious institutions.

Many property uses that the city had considered accessory are actually primary to a congregation’s mission, city staff decided after meeting with the Interfaith Action Coalition and other religious groups that were opposed to the original ordinance language. The proposed ordinance that will be reviewed by the City Council in a public hearing at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 12, no longer regulates most accessory uses nor the building expansions to accommodate them.

Well over 150 religious institutions and their individual members objected to the original proposal in oral or written testimony. They included Interfaith Action, the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Concordia University Saint Paul, the Saint Paul Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and parishioners from Lumen Christi, Holy Spirit and Nativity Catholic churches.

 

   
Virginia Street Church
The city of Saint Paul is drafting new zoning regulations to govern the accessory uses of property owned by religious institutions such as the Virginia Street Church above on Selby Avenue and Virginia Street.

The religious institutions said the ordinance as originally drafted would have harmed their mission by overly restricting programs and services. They cited conflicts with the free exercise of religion under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

“While separation of church and state is an important protection for all religions, it doesn’t mean we as people of faith should not engage in our civic duties, our social responsibilities and the political process,” said the Reverend Paul Feela, pastor of Lumen Christi. “These regulations as proposed would curtail much of what we can do as religious communities.”

“It’s especially difficult to hear about these proposals at a time in our history when division, isolation and hatred has taken hold,” said Katie Mendenhall, music director at Holy Spirit Church. “We so desperately need the warmth and inclusion and outreach that only church communities can offer. This kind of government control will only lead to more hurt, division and isolation.”

 

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The ordinance as revised would no longer require a conditional use permit for social services and other programs that occupy more than 1,000 square feet of space. Those permits would now be required for new services or programs involving more than 7,000 square feet or for any daytime or overnight shelters for homeless people.Emergency housing would still be allowed without a permit, but only within the limits of building and fire codes.

Child care centers and preschools, which are now only allowed in former religious institutions, would be allowed in existing institutions. Small accessory uses, such as travel agencies, accounting services or other small offices would be allowed with the approval of city staff.

The Planning Commission was unanimous in recommending the revised zoning regulations on December 17. The initial proposal was triggered by a 2019 U.S. District Court order that was part of a settlement between the city of Saint Paul and Listening House, a day shelter for homeless people that relocated from downtown to First Lutheran Church in Dayton’s Bluff several years ago. Listening House’s new location was approved by city staff without a hearing in the neighborhood. When neighbors protested, the city imposed a host of regulations on the homeless shelter’s operations and Listening House sued.

Under the federal court order, the city has until February 1 to adopt new regulations of the accessory uses at faith-based institutions.

— Jane McClure

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