Ferndale Church Has the Right to Help Poor People, ACLU Tells Court

September 24, 2009

DETROIT — In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the First Baptist Church of Ferndale, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has urged the Oakland County Circuit Court not to interfere with the church's mission of serving the poor.  A group of Ferndale residents, citing a zoning ordinance, recently asked the court to deny the church the ability to use its own building to provide charitable social services to poor people.  The ACLU argued in its brief that denying the church permission to help poor people would violate the Religious Land Use Act of 2000.

"Congress enacted the Religious Land Use Act to protect the fundamental right of freedom of religion," said Dan Korobkin, an ACLU of Michigan staff attorney who is representing the church.  "Churches and other religious institutions have the right to use their property to exercise their religious beliefs -- which in this case entails providing charitable services to the poor and underprivileged."

"We take seriously the biblical command that Christians feed the hungry and clothe the poor," explained Rev. Catherine Feldpausch, pastor of First Baptist Church of Ferndale.  "Using our church to help underprivileged citizens is an essential part of our religious mission."

Last year, the First Baptist Church made arrangements for a charity for homeless persons known as the South Oakland Shelter to occupy an empty wing of the church where it would provide daytime social services including job counseling and access to telephones, the Internet, and personal hygiene facilities.  A small group of Ferndale residents who lived near the church asked the City of Ferndale to block the move, and in March the ACLU wrote a letter to the Ferndale Board of Zoning Appeals urging the city not to interfere with the church's religious exercise.  The zoning board agreed with the ACLU and approved the South Oakland Shelter plan, but the residents have appealed the Board's decision to the Oakland County Circuit Court.  Judge Denise Langford Morris is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the appeal on October 21.

In its brief, the ACLU argues that the Ferndale zoning board was correct to side with the church because federal law prohibits land use regulations that substantially burden the ability of a religious institution to advance its religious mission.  Zoning boards may not make decisions that burden the free exercise of religion simply because neighbors object.

"After considering the neighbors' objections and learning about the First Baptist Church's religious mission, the City of Ferndale made the right call," said Korobkin.  "We're hopeful that the court, too, will recognize that religious freedom is paramount."

Marshall J. Widick of the Detroit law firm Sachs Waldman authored the ACLU's brief on behalf of the church.  In addition to Widick and Korobkin, the First Baptist Church of Ferndale is represented by ACLU of Michigan Legal Director Michael J. Steinberg.

To read the brief, click here.
To read the ACLU's letter to the zoning board, click here.