Augusta’s faith community is NOT being denied religious freedom

This is the December “In Reason We Trust” monthly column we write for the Kennebec Journal. At issue is the “interference” Augusta’s zoning laws, laws that apply to everyone living in Augusta, are placing on the Episcopal Diocese’s ability to sell the former St. Marks church property.

Augusta’s faith community is NOT being denied religious freedom

When I started to research the conflict between the Augusta Planning Board and the Episcopal Diocese of Maine over the sale of the former St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, I was going to focus on the Rev. Erik Karas’s claim that by denying the church the right to continue providing social services at the church property Augusta was defining and limiting worship. The more I read though the more I discovered that the most likely main objection to Augusta “interfering” with the sale of St. Marks is just that, the ability of the Diocese to sell the property.

When St. Marks closed the proposed sale had been expected to require the social services to move. Even as late as July, 2016, there were plans to relocate these services. Joseph Riddick, senior warden of the church, said even though St. Marks buildings are being sold, the parishioners and our ministries are going to continue, just in a different place. Riddick said those services will continue after the sale, and the church is working with partners to try to find new locations for them.

Mayor David Rollins and Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti are concerned that one of the bidders on the property, the Bread of Life Ministries, would want to move their homeless shelter and soup kitchen to the site. The church is concerned that if Augusta doesn’t allow these services to continue after the sale, the Bread of Life Ministries may not buy the property. The current social services are allowed if they are associated with a church at that location but, without this association, these services would not be allowed.

Riddick also said, “I am concerned the City Council is going to scare people off by these political tactics,” and “You have certain city councilors leading this campaign about the St. Mark’s property, causing problems for the church. And it looks like there is an effort to derail the application process for possible use of the property.” Objecting that the Augusta Planning Board requires any potential new owner to limit “possible use of the property” to those that comply with zoning laws applicable to everyone has created division where there should be none.

When St. Marks closed I believe it ceased to be a church. In my opinion the Augusta Planning Board could have ended these social services when the church closed as there was no longer an association with a church at that location. Allowing these social services to temporally continue in a zone where such activity is prohibited certainly shows that Mayor Rollins is sensitive to the needy and recognizes the need for these services. He is NOT engaging in “political tactics” to cause problems for the church. Mayor Rollins, Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti and the Augusta Planning Board are working to strike a delicate balance between allowing services to be provided to the needy with ensuring that neighborhoods don’t become unlivable. Their primary concern is how these services impact the neighborhood where these services are delivered. Rev. Karas’s offer to work on a solution to how the church’s “form of worship” impacts the neighborhood, just so long as there are no limits placed on how the church worships, is disingenuous at best.

Since Maine does not have a Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Rev. Karas’s belief that Augusta should not be “interfering” in how the church worships most likely stems from the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The Supreme Court has consistently interpreted the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to mean that governments cannot regulate religious beliefs but can regulate religious practices when those practices come in conflict with secular laws that govern the general public. Otherwise, as Justice Scalia reasoned, to prevent the government from enforcing laws that apply to everyone, even if the law inadvertently restricts a religious practice, “permits the individual “to become a law unto himself,” “invites anarchy” and would produce a “constitutional anomaly.” It would, Scalia claimed, make a citizen’s obligation to obey the law contingent on (their) religious beliefs”.

I agree. Allowing free religious expression does not mean you have the right to violate the rights of others. I applaud Mayor Rollins, Ward 1 Councilor Linda Conti and the Augusta Planning Board for doing their jobs by making a thorough analysis of what the former St. Marks church property can be used for. In this way the rights of all Augusta citizens, religious and secular, will be met.