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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Merrimack congregation claims zoning rules biased

CONCORD – The Merrimack Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses has asked a judge to declare the town’s zoning regulations unconstitutional and stop officials from enforcing restrictions on churches in residential areas.

A hearing on the congregation’s request for a preliminary injunction is scheduled for Wednesday morning in U.S. District Court before Magistrate Judge Landya McCafferty. If a second day of hearing is required, Thursday afternoon is also tentatively scheduled.

The Merrimack Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Goffstown Harvest Christian Church both filed lawsuits last month in federal court, accusing their respective towns of religious discrimination.

Attorney Michael Tierney of Manchester, who represents both churches, has requested a preliminary injunction only in the Merrimack case, court records show.

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 holds that cities and towns can’t apply planning and zoning regulations in ways that “impose a substantial burden” on the freedom to worship, unless they can show that their regulations are “the least restrictive means” to the desired end.

Courts around the country are still working out how the law squares with local zoning and planning regulations, which the federal law recognizes have sometimes been used to cloak discrimination.

The Merrimack Congregation of Jehovah’s Witness seeks to build a Kingdon Hall on a 12-acre lot at 63 Wire Road, but the town zoning board declined to allow it, citing traffic concerns.

Although Merrrimack zoning ordinances require a special exception to build a house of worship in a residential zone, Tierney argues that most churches in town are within residential areas, and the town hadn’t denied any other church’s request to build or expand in the past 15 years.

The 90 to 100 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Merrimack have no place to worship in town, their suit states. In contrast, the Goffstown Harvest Christian Church has a church and food pantry on Mast Road, but seeks to build in an industrial zone off Route 114.

Andrew Wolfe can be reached at 759-2808 or awolfe@nashuatelegraph.com.