Scott Tibbs
January 1, 2000

Back to opinion page.

Dover Amendment not unconstitutional

I was nothing short of amazed as I was looking though the paper today and found an Associated Press story about a controversy surrounding the construction of a 69,000 square foot Mormon temple in a Boston suburb.

At first, it appeared to be a normal "not in my back yard" scenario. The temple would draw worshippers from all over the Northeast and Canada, and the traffic, along with the size of the building, would be a disruption to the neighbors.

Normally, the zoning restrictions in Belmont would prevent such a structure from being built in the neighborhood. But a state law in Massachusetts exempts religious groups that wish to build a church from those zoning restrictions.

So three neighbors have filed a lawsuit in a federal appeals court, arguing that the Massachusetts law, known as the Dover Amendment, is unconstitutional because it gives "advantages to religious groups", and an atheist group would not be able to build a similar structure. The lawyer for the residents contends that the "advantages" given to religious groups is "a law respecting the establishment of religion".

Of course, if you actually believe that I've got some Ocean Front Property in Arizona to sell you, as George Strait would say. This is obviously a "not in my back yard" scenario, with the phony First Amendment argument attached for no other reason than because they cannot stop it any other way.

Liberals also conveniently forget that the First Amendment's mention of religion also consists of a second portion: "…or prohibit the free exercise thereof." It's quite obvious that these zoning restrictions, if left unchecked, do prohibit the free exercise of religion, because the church would not be built and the Mormons would have to find somewhere else to build their house of worship… or not build it at all.

It is precisely because of these types of restrictions that a Democratic Congress passed a law forcing states and municipalities to demonstrate that laws inadvertently placing restrictions on people of faith must achieve a clear public good to justify the law's existence. That law was also declared "unconstitutional" on extremely weak reasoning, but the Republican Congress passed a modified version of the law.

Another reason the Dover Amendment and laws like it are important is that city councils and plan commissions could use zoning and other laws as a backdoor way to stifle religions that they don't like. In addition, as restrictive as some municipalities are with zoning, many churches would never be built if it weren't for laws like the Dover Amendment.

How the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Dover Amendment will go is uncertain. It depends on the judge in question. But regardless of how it turns out this case demonstrates the absolute necessity of electing a President who will appoint judges that respect religious freedom. And that will not happen if we elect a Democrat in 2000.