The Senate passed legislation on April 21 aimed at allowing churches to be anywhere that non-religious groups are permitted to operate.
As approved by senators, H2596 would prohibit a government entity from implementing any zoning regulation that would impose an “unreasonable burden” on a person’s exercise of religion.
The bill defines unreasonable burden to mean preventing someone from using his or her property “in a manner that the person finds satisfactory to fulfill the person’s religious mission.”
Put another way, a municipality cannot limit churches from locating in a particular area if other non-religious organizations were also allowed to operate there.
There are exemptions, such as when a church’s relocation to an area would violate religion-neutral zoning standards or when there is a potential hazard, such as when toxic chemicals are used in an adjacent property.
The bill also expressly states that a government entity cannot treat a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a non-religious group.
The bill, which was introduced by Rep. Steve Yarbrough, a Republican from Chandler, received a mostly partisan vote, 17-12.
The bill now goes back to the House for further action.
Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa and a strong supporter of the bill, said he feels a “sense of sadness” that lawmakers have had to introduce and pass legislation to stop discrimination against churches.
“It’s disconcerting when a zoning board would rather have a strip club or a bar in its local community instead of a church,” he said.
He added that he hoped to see all lawmakers vote for the measure.
But Democrats said the measure curbs local control.
“Why do we have officials elected at the local level, so that we can micromanage them? I don’t think so,” said Sen. Meg Burton Cahill, a Democrat from Tempe.
Zoning is the job of local boards – not lawmakers, she said, adding, “I trust my council members.”
Supporters have argued that the bill buttresses a federal law that prohibits discrimination against churches in zoning matters. They said it would clarify the federal law and prevent unnecessary legal battles between churches and local governments.
But critics fear that the bill would create a host of practical and legal problems for municipalities. They also said rather than providing for a level playing field, it imbalances the situation in favor of religious groups.
In fact, the Senate tweaked the bill before passing it.
Under current law, a liquor license cannot be issued to new establishments within 300 feet of a church or school.
The adopted amendment, which was offered by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Gray, allows a municipality to exempt, on a case by case basis, establishments from the distance restrictions if a church or charter school is within an “entertainment district.”
The amendment defines an “entertainment district” as a one-square mile area that is full of entertainment, artistic and cultural venues, such as music halls, restaurants and bars.
Under the amendment, a municipality’s governing body would have to adopt a resolution designating an area to be an “entertainment district.”
Gray said the language of the amendment was negotiated with stakeholders and is aimed at providing a very limited exemption for liquor establishments to operate near a church within a defined area.
“What the amendment does is it allows the cities a little bit more flexibility with regard to certain business, especially those that sell alcohol, so that they can still accommodate the bill, but make one small exemption in a mile-square area that they decide within their city,” Gray said.
Sen. Ken. Cheuvront, a Democrat from Phoenix, unsuccessfully offered two amendments that would have expanded an entertainment district’s area to five square miles and would have clarified that the renewal of a liquor license is not prohibited if the original license were issued at a time when no church was within 300 feet of the establishment.
“If the churches, which I understand their position, want to be able to go anywhere they want to go, that’s their ability,” Cheuvront said. “But at the same time, we should not then limit what a property owner can do with his land because of that location of the religious establishment.”
Actually, the laws on distance restrictions already say the renewal of an establishment’s liquor license is not prohibited if a church or school wasn’t nearby at the time of the original license application.
But Cheuvront wanted to make sure, through his amendment, that this would remain the policy after H2596 becomes law.
Arizona Senate, April 21, H2596
Leah Landrum Taylor
Debbie McCune Davis