If a church collects a registration fee for a nonreligious day camp held on church property, does that constitute a commercial use of the property?
That question has been the subject of a heated debate in Auburn over the past few months, and it’s one the Auburn City Court could rule on as early as mid-April.
The debate began in early July 2014, when the city of Auburn ordered the First Presbyterian Church to immediately stop presenting the Glee Musical Theater Camp at the historic Case Mansion, which the church owns. The mansion, which is next to the church, is located in an R2 zone, which is a residential district zoned for single- and two-family residences. According to court documents, the city contends that the registration fees paid by campers made the camp a commercial use of the property, which is prohibited in an R2 zone.
The Catholic Courier’s repeated requests for comment from the city of Auburn were unsuccessful, and Andrew Fusco, the attorney representing the city, passed away unexpectedly March 19.
The church disagrees with the city’s claim and is fighting it in court on several grounds, said attorney Andrew J. Leja of Hiscock & Barclay LLP, which is representing the First Presbyterian Church in conjunction with the Liberty Institute, a national, nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending religious freedom. The first part of the church’s three-tiered defense maintains that the city of Auburn’s own zoning code doesn’t support the city’s claim that the camp is a commercial use, Leja said.
"The usual definition of commercial is something that’s done for profit. The church is getting no profit from this," he said.
Leja and the attorneys of the Liberty Institute also contend that even if the glee camp were assumed to be commercial, the city’s attempt to ban it from the church grounds would present a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act’s Equal Terms Clause, which stipulates that churches must receive the same treatment as any other entity within the same zoning district.
"You can’t discriminate against the church on the basis that it’s a church," Leja explained, noting that there are several R2 zones within Auburn’s city limits. "I went through one day and counted at least 26 different uses in the R2 zones that are commercial in nature — law offices, doctor’s offices, chiropractor’s offices, medical-supply stores, hair salons, fraternal organizations like the Moose Club and more."
Leja said the city’s attempt to ban the glee camp also presents a violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause. As long as the church is engaged in a religious pursuit or an activity that’s part of its religious mission, the government can’t arbitrarily ban it, he said. In a Dec. 18, 2014, affidavit, the church’s pastor, the Rev. Eileen Winter, said The First Presbyterian Church considers the glee camp to be a part of its religious mission. The church, which was founded in 1810, always has played an integral role in the development of Auburn, specifically in the areas of education, vocational training, community services and the arts, she said.
"The camp advances the Church’s religious mission of supporting the community and the love of music," Rev. Winter stated in her affidavit.
It doesn’t matter if the glee camp itself is religious in nature, Leja said. "As long as the church considers it part of its religious mission, it’s not up to the courts or the government to challenge the veracity of that claim," he said.
The attorneys representing the church and the city have been asked to submit papers detailing their positions to Auburn City Court, and a judge will determine whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary. If so, the hearing, which would include witness testimony and cross-examination, could take place as early as mid-April, said Jeremy Dys, Liberty Institute’s senior counsel on the case.
Dys and Leja said the case is significant because its outcome could set a precedent for other cases. The case has garnered national media attention, and in January Rev. Winter discussed the case on Fox News, said Leja, a Catholic who belongs to Ss. Mary and Martha Parish in Auburn.
"I’m very concerned that the city would try to intrude on the inner workings of a church of any denomination. I think that’s very disturbing. It really has ramifications that certainly affect all denominations," he said.
Many churches — including Catholic churches — hold festivals and vacation Bible school programs for which they often charge registration fees, he noted. If the First Presbyterian Church loses its case, local governments might have grounds to claim such events are commercial activities and attempt to ban them.
"It’s a slippery slope, and we don’t want to go down that slope," Leja said.