DETROIT — In a letter sent yesterday to the Ypsilanti mayor and city council, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and its Washtenaw Branch has advised that a city zoning ordinance unconstitutionally discriminates against religious groups. The letter also urges that the city reverse a decision to evict a Pentecostal church group from a building in the business district.
"Religion flourishes in this country when government remains neutral,” said Michael J. Steinberg, Legal Director of the ACLU of Michigan. “Government may not favor religion over non-religion, but by the same token, it may not discriminate against religion. Ypsilanti’s zoning ordinance discriminates against religion by allowing secular community groups to meet in the business district but not religious groups.”
A small Pentecostal church group of 15 people currently holds bible classes on Tuesday evenings and church services on Sunday evenings in an Ypsilanti building located in the business district. The City has given the church group 60 days to vacate.
The ACLU letter asserts that the ordinance violates the Constitution and federal law by treating religious groups less favorably than secular groups. While the ordinance does not allow churches in the business district, it allows community service clubs, lodges, banquet halls, meeting halls, schools, adult drop-in centers, pool halls and tattoo parlors. The letter states that “there is no rational reason much less a compelling reason for the city to discriminate against [churches].”
The City of Ypsilanti has referred the matter to its city attorney, John Barr. The City Council meeting scheduled for last night, where it was anticipated that the issue would be discussed, was canceled.
"The ACLU is sometimes unfairly characterized as being anti-religious, but the truth is we have repeatedly represented Christians and other religious individuals when the government interferes with their religious freedom,” said Steinberg.
In Michigan, the ACLU recently defended the right of a high school valedictorian to place a personal religious message in her high school yearbook and a Baptist minister to perform baptisms in a lake at a state operated park. After the ACLU became involved, conservative Christian activists were able broadcast on public access television in Iowa, and preachers were allowed to deliver their message in the streets of Tampa, Florida.
The ACLU of Michigan is currently representing a Catholic man who was sentenced by a Genesee County drug court to a Pentecostal drug rehabilitation center where he was forbidden from practicing Catholicism and where Catholicism was referred to as “witchcraft.”