PHILADELPHIA Towns trying to control noise and traffic may legally prevent religious groups from opening churches and temples in residential neighborhoods, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals represents a setback to a Jewish congregation trying to open a synagogue in a Philadelphia suburb.
The court overturned a judge's ruling that had struck down a local zoning law in Abington Township that allowed golf courses, kennels and riding clubs but not churches in residential areas.
In its opinion, the appellate panel said large churches or temples can create traffic and parking problems. It also said that while churches were once seen as an integral part of most neighborhoods, "we do not believe land use planners can assume anymore that religious uses are inherently compatible with family and residential uses."
"The facts of this case illustrate why religious uses may be, in some cases, incompatible with a place of 'quiet seclusion,'" the 3rd Circuit added.
The ruling may not be a permanent setback to Congregation Kol Ami, the group that challenged Abington's zoning rules when it was prevented from moving into an 11-acre former monastery now home to a small order of Catholic nuns.
The 3rd Circuit sent the case back to a federal judge for further action and left the door open for the congregation to prove its case on a variety of legal grounds.
"We still feel good about our chances," said Anthony R. Picarello Jr., a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which argued the case on Kol Ami's behalf.
Abington's lawyer, Marci A. Hamilton, said she was confident the township would prevail in its efforts to protect its zoning rules, which she said were necessary to control suburban growth.
"This case takes place at a time when religious (buildings) are turning into '24-7' operations," she said.
About 210 families are members of the Kol Ami congregation, which also wants to open a religious school for 120 students on the site.
Neighbors oppose the move, saying an active synagogue would bring noise and traffic to what is now a residential cul-de-sac shared with million-dollar homes.
Under Abington's 1992 zoning plan, churches, hospitals and schools are restricted to nonresidential areas.