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Martin Laplante

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Sat, 22 Mar 2008

Vancouver Churches Get a Licence to Break the Law

Several news outlets including The Globe and Mail have recently reported on Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan's statement that he would table a motion that faith communities not have to take out a permit simply to do good works in the community.

I don't know whether it is only the journalists that are confused or the mayor as well, but there is no such permit requirement. The issue is purely one of zoning. The issue started nearly 3 years ago (not 6 months as stated in the story) when a church presented plans to expand on their site and to start providing large scale social services in the new building. "Social Service Centre" is a Conditional Approval Use in this zone, meaning that the city can impose conditions.

The application was made, and over the objections of 80% of the community, who thought that with the 21 other social service centres in the neighbourhood maybe this would be too much of a burden on the community, and that the church in question had difficulties managing the impact of its programs on the community. The city came up with a proposed management plan to address the impacts on the community.

A year later, the church went public with complaints about the conditions that were attached to their conditional approval. A group calling itself Faith Communities Called to Solidarity with the Poor held a press conference last August. The United Church of Canada moderator David Giuliano sent a letter of support.

Besides confusion about the difference between permits and land use, what these groups and the mayor are calling for is an exemption from the zoning law for churches. Put another way, the zoning rules for social service centres would apply to secular organizations but would not apply to church organizations.

Put simply, this is "people zoning", zoning rules that apply depending on the characteristics of the people involved and not on the activity, and the Charter to Rights forbids it. Exempting churches would be illegal. I have often seen faith-based groups go to court to make that very Charter argument when the shoe is on the other foot: when a city tries to regulate land uses based on the types of people that would live somewhere. Saying you are exempt because you are a cleric is the same thing.

I have often seen social service organizations, both religious and secular, argue with a straight face that because their mission is to do good, they can do no harm. When they believe that they are immune to causing harm because they are such holy persons, I have grave doubts about their ability to mitigate the harm that does get caused. I suspect that social services attract more than their share of narcissistic personalities who think they are unable to cause harm.

Exempting religious groups from zoning is a non-starter. There is ample evidence that a concentration of certain social services in dense or in poor neighbourhoods can do a great deal of harm both to the community and to the clients. Urban planning tools are essential to distribute these services widely and to put them in a context that reduces harm. California is doing it with its new Fair Share Zoning law, and New York City's Fair Share Criteria has done a great deal of good. In the aftermath of the Gautreaux Supreme Court decision, several U.S. programs, including Scattered Site Housing have had dramatic success. The concentration of poverty in the U.S. has dropped dramatically since these programs went into effect, and the effect of concentration on health, safety, and other social indicators is well known.

Sorry, Churches. Being above the law ended with the Middle Ages.

Disclaimer: I support the social service activities of my own church (they conform to zoning) and I have worked for a coalition of businesses and social service organizations in zoning issues. I have also opposed some zoning changes requested by social service organizations, religious and not.

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