Denial of Church Building Permit Unlawful
WHY discriminate against those who desire to assemble for divine worship? With lawlessness and delinquency rampant can you imagine city officials so unreasonable and arbitrary that they would forbid the construction of a church building? Is it possible that public officials could stoop so low? The denial of a permit to build a meeting place and place of worship is so obviously capricious that it offends any reasonable person.
From earliest times in America the church building has occupied a special status. It has been the desire of the people that the government should protect and extend favors as far as possible to congregations assembled for worship. All of the forty-eight states have provided in their constitutions for the exemption of churches from the payment of taxes. Churches bear burdens that would ordinarily fall directly upon the government. Christian preaching of the gospel enjoins upon the people an obligation to conduct themselves uprightly and to obey all proper law.
Jehovah’s witnesses are not surprised nor discouraged when confronted by bigotry, arbitrary denials of fundamental rights or discrimination on the part of public officials. “From ancient times to the present day, the ingenuity of man has known no limits in its ability to forge weapons of oppression for use against those who dare to express or practice unorthodox beliefs.”—Mr. Justice Murphy, dissenting, in Prince v. Massachusetts, 321 U. S. 158, 175-176.
In Tampa, Florida, it was necessary for a congregation to build a meeting place, since they were unable to lease suitable accommodations. A nonprofit corporation was organized, a lot obtained and a building permit procured. The day after the permit was granted the building inspector stopped work. He subsequently granted a new permit and then withdrew it, resorting to dilatory, delaying tactics. The board of representatives then, while the building inspector had the matter under reconsideration, hurriedly passed an ordinance designed to prohibit building of the church under the pretext of requiring off-street parking facilities for automobiles in the vicinity of places of assembly in residential areas.
Not retreating from their purpose Jehovah’s witnesses persisted in their plan to provide themselves with an appropriate place in which to meet. It was necessary for them to reincorporate and resubmit their application, which complied with the law in all respects and provided adequate off-street parking. The inspector refused to accept or handle it, rejecting and denying the application. He attempted to justify the denial on the absurd ground that the erection of a small church in a residential area would result in traffic congestion and create a hazard. Jehovah’s witnesses brought suit for a writ of mandamus to compel the issuance of a permit.
Denied relief in the trial court from this rankling abuse of power they appealed from the adverse decision to the Supreme Court of Florida, requesting the highest court in the state to correct this gross injustice. Their counsel by written briefs and oral argument exposed the unjust action of the officials and urged the court to reprimand them for their illegal conspiracy against the building of the church. Resorting to the extreme measure of prohibiting the construction of the church could have no reasonable relation whatever to the public welfare or safety. “It is better,” said counsel, “that the worshipers be required to park their cars on some other private parking lot or leave their cars at home or even travel by taxi or bus than that the right to erect a church be completely denied on the ground that it creates a traffic hazard.”
The Supreme Court of Florida on October 6, 1950, unanimously upheld Jehovah’s witnesses. Justice Terrell wrote the interesting opinion holding that they had substantially complied with the requirement of off-street parking space and reminding the officials that they had sunk down into the disgraceful depths of legal depravity—flagrant abridgment of freedom of assembly, speech and worship—saying, among other things:
“The contention that people congregating for religious purposes cause such congestion as to create a traffic hazard has very little in substance to support it. . . . Which is the more important to preserve and foster, an attitude of respect or reverence for these institutions or throw it to the discard in order that the careless and unthinking may rip through the streets ad lib with no thought of the safety of man or beast? . . . Different species of democracy have existed for more than 2,000 years, but democracy as we know it has never existed among the unchurched. A people unschooled about the sovereignty of God, the ten commandments and the ethics of Jesus, could never have evolved the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. . . . We therefore conclude that as to appellants the denial of their permit as requested was arbitrary and unreasonable, (1) because the provisions of the ordinance were substantially complied with, and (2) there is no showing that the ordinance had any relation to the public health, morals, safety or welfare.”
Again, as in so many other cases, the victory on behalf of Jehovah’s witnesses was widely acclaimed by others who will participate in the fruits of their diligent efforts to ‘defend and legally establish the good news’. A prominent lawyer of Tampa expressed his appreciation to the Supreme Court of Florida as follows, in part:
“I want you to know that I certainly enjoyed reading the opinion written by you in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses, North Unit, Inc. v. The City of Tampa. . . .
“In many instances the zoning authorities, both city and county, have acted extremely arbitrary and unreasonable. If it wasn’t for the small means and lack of finances on the part of the aggrieved property owners, many of these cases would come to the Supreme Court. Thousands of people appreciated the fact that the Supreme Court of Florida has called a halt on these zoning boards, allowing the operation of a saloon in a community and denying a church being erected there.”
Jehovah’s witnesses are happy to be able to help in removing oppression by arbitrary officials, as stated by the grateful attorney, in “the spirit of American democracy as we understand it”. They also rejoice that they are able to proceed with the building of their Kingdom Hall where all are invited to worship God in spirit and in truth and take in knowledge which means their everlasting life.—John 17:3, NW.