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OPINION: In Great Neck, wall between church & state has crumbled

Rita Hall, a former Newsday staffer, is an artist and activist who lives in Great Neck.

Throughout our country's history, the separation of church and state mandated in the Constitution has been at the center of an ongoing re-evaluation of who we are. Because we remain one of the most devout nations in the world, every petition to get government out of the belief business becomes a flashpoint for those who would undermine keeping God and country apart.


A recent and growing battlefront has been the enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Passed during the Clinton administration, the act says that "no government shall impose or implement a land-use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution."

In other words, religious groups can establish themselves wherever they like.

One of the law's unintended consequences is that it does nothing to protect the environmental quality of the communities in which religious groups buy, rent, build and proselytize. And because a religious institution does not pay property tax, affected municipalities suffer extra financial burdens as well.

Witness a contentious zoning fight in Great Neck. After World War II, the construction of houses of worship in the hamlet kept in line with an expanding Jewish population. More recently, however, the arrival of Iranian and ultra-Orthodox congregants has ignited an explosion in temple building. There are now 35 religious land-use properties on the peninsula, 23 of them synagogues. That's about one for every 400 people - more per capita than in Jerusalem. All enjoy tax-free status. There are also three mikvahs (ritual baths) within the village; they, too, are free of any tax responsibility.

Now Ohr Haemeth, the American Society for Torah Education, a group from Latin America, wants to construct another mikvah, despite local objections.

Invoking the Religious Land Use act, the group refuses to make the site conform to zoning laws. But why should the members of the community, who will have to defray any litigation costs and make up the shortfall of tax revenue lost to yet another religious site, not have a say in whether it gets built?

The proliferation of such projects must be fought, not just by appealing to (sometimes powerless) community zoning boards, but by repealing or amending the law that bestowed their legitimacy in the first place. The land-use act must be challenged in both the courts and in Congress and ultimately thrown out.

At its heart, it is unconstitutional. It gives open-ended permission for houses of worship to multiply without zoning restriction and with tax exemption, removing the wall between church and state by making the public pay for prayer.

Great Neck is not the only place where such statutory protection is being challenged. In Roosevelt, local residents are protesting an increase in the number of churches - now 68 and counting - that is threatening a shaky business environment and a budget that is already spread thin.

In Connecticut, the State Supreme Court ruled against the Cambodian Buddhist Society, saying it could not expand its premises in Newtown because of the adverse environmental impact this would have on the surrounding community.

Those who use the land-use act to support the invasion of a neighborhood expect and receive unequal, special treatment, and they threaten our secular republic as profoundly as those who advocate creationist curricula, municipal liturgical displays or prayer in public schools.

It was the intent of our founding fathers that faith flourish without persecution or government intervention, while our elected officials do the job that the people have hired them to do - govern. We must defend our precious and precarious separation of church and state not only because it is the purest exercise of free expression, the clearest definition of our national idea or the fundamental intent of the framers of our Constitution, but because it is the law.