My partner Daniel Dalton just published a blog entitled The Reality of Racism and Zoning. His blog touches on how we, as a law firm, have seen race play a role in zoning. He highlights how municipal zoning policies have been used as a means of racial discrimination and explains how one of our current cases Shavers v. Almont Township, Michigan, provides a case in point. I only wish to add a few further examples to underscore the importance of this topic and the need to combat racism in zoning with every tool we have available–including the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act.
The most egregious case I have been involved in as lead counsel is King’s Tabernacle v. Johnston, Rhode Island. In that case, King’s Tabernacle, a mostly African-American congregation, bought a historic 125-year-old church building rightly thinking that they could use it as a church. Tragically, the town said that the church needed a permit before it could open and then refused to issue it. There was ample evidence that the congregants’ race was behind the denial. And after I filed suit in federal court on behalf of the Church, I received an anonymous letter that stated in part:
“The reason why the Revernd [sic] is having a difficult time in Johnston RI is obvious. … We don’t want any more worthless, drains on society, ill-mannered, disrespectful [N words] in this town. …”
The letter also threatened me for representing the church. Thankfully, due to the graciousness of Pastor Chris Abhulime and the prompt intervention of United States District Court Judge William E. Smith, we were able to resolve the case swiftly and in a way that got the church in the building, its fees and costs paid, and paved the way for reconciliation with the municipality. King’s Tabernacle has since invested over $250,000 into renovating the building and has developed a great relationship with town officials.
My partner Daniel Dalton also received death threats in a case the firm filed on behalf of a mosque in Sterling heights a few years ago. While religious discrimination is involved in many of our cases, some of them also involve an element of racial discrimination. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act was enacted in 2000 based on substantial evidence that minority congregations were widely being discriminated against in the land use context.
And there are still other racially charged cases which we have been able to resolve without filing a lawsuit. For example, Dalton & Tomich attorney Larry Opalewski represented an African-American congregation in Mississippi that was being ordered to do much more than other congregations and businesses in order to obtain a certificate of occupancy. Because municipal zoning powers have mushroomed over the years, so many of our freedoms are now subject to permitting schemes–permitting schemes which can be abused by officials with unlawful motives. But this is why we fight. It is our privilege to represent a diverse group of clients all across the country and do what we can to stem this abuse one case at a time.