City bans New Hampshire church home prayer meetings
In a Catch-22 zoning, a small Christian congregation in Bedford, New Hampshire, is being told by local officials that because it was granted permission to add a meeting room to a home it uses for services religious, she must stop using this house to organize religious services.
The church is now suing Bedford, arguing that city officials are restricting its gatherings solely because of their religious nature.
“The determination that religious usage is different and [that] you can’t bring people together in a living room if its purpose is religious, that’s clearly an overreach,” says Michael Tierney, an attorney representing the New Hope Christian Fellowship in Bedford. ” It is unacceptable.
In March 2020, New Hope Christian Fellowship purchased a 2,500 square foot, three-bedroom home on rural property along a state road in Bedford. The plan had always been to use the building to host Sunday services, prayer meetings and other church activities that the congregation could not do at their previous meeting place – a martial arts studio. .
After a pandemic-induced hiatus on in-person services, New Hope began holding Sunday services in the living room of the house. Their complaint indicates that there were never more than 20 people present.
Hoping to grow its small congregation, the church also received approval from Bedford Planning Council in October 2020 for a project that would convert and expand an existing garage on the property into a new meeting hall and would add parking.
Soon New Hope volunteers got to work adding the parking lot and renovating the garage.
Church services were uneventful until October 2021. This was when New Hope received a cease and desist order from the town of Bedford stating that the church was operating without a required certificate of occupancy and that she would have to acquire one before she could host meetings. Again.
Tierney says it took the congregation by surprise, given that the house she was meeting in had a valid certificate of occupancy issued in 1994 when it was built.
In response, the church stopped holding Sunday services. He also appealed the cease and desist letter to Bedford’s Zoning Board of Adjustment.
At a December 2021 meeting, zoning board officials said that when the city approved plans to expand the church, it changed the property’s use from residential to church. This meant that a new certificate of occupancy for a church could not be granted until New Hope had completed its planned meeting hall and complied with the conditions attached to the approval of that hall.
The result of all this bureaucracy was that New Hope was not allowed to continue meeting in the house they owned, even if nothing changed about their meetings or the physical structure of the house itself.
Tierney argued at that December meeting that New Hope prayer services were still just 10 to 20 people meeting in a living room, like a baby shower or a Cub Scout meeting. A new certificate of occupancy would be required for use of the new meeting room, but use of the pre-existing, unaltered single-family home should not be affected, he said.
During a public comment period, members of New Hope said that while they were willing to “give Bedford back what is Bedford’s,” they had also been good neighbors thus far and wanted to use the property as they always had.
“Have there been any complaints about backing up traffic on [Route] 101? Were there complaints from any of our neighbors that we were making too much noise when we were doing our construction? a devotee said in a public comment. “I don’t think you treat us the same. That’s what it’s about. We are not treated equally.”
These arguments have proven unconvincing. The zoning board denied New Hope’s appeal at the December meeting.
In March, the church sued the city in local superior court. His petition claims that Bedford’s cease and desist letter violates both New Hampshire’s religious liberty protections and the US Constitution as well as federal law on the use of institutionalized religious lands.
City officials say they treat New Hope no differently than any other institution that might want to move to Bedford.
“All projects, whether it is a bank, a retail site or a religious institution, must be approved by the town planning council. Then they would get planning permission, they would complete the improvements listed on the building permits and they would get inspections and receive a certificate of occupancy,” Bedford City Manager Rick Sawyer told the New Hampshire Bulletinwho first reported on the story in July.
Tierney tells Raison that New Hope and Bedford have a mediation meeting scheduled for September and hopefully the zoning issue is resolved.
He points out that city officials are not trying to correct any supposed externality or nuisance caused by the church or its members, noting that they have no problem with potentially more disruptive construction activity.
“The city is okay with church member volunteers going there and doing construction, but not okay with them going there and reading the Bible together,” Tierney says. “No city should regulate based on the purpose of the gathering.”