In a victory for religious freedom, the Town of Coventry has granted a zoning permit to the Horn and Cauldron, Church of the Earth, a small Wiccan church represented by the ACLU and the ACLU of Rhode Island. The permit, approved earlier this month, allows the church to continue holding religious services and activities on its property in the town. Earlier this year, the Coventry Zoning Board of Review initially declined to approve the permit. The recent decision to grant the Church’s application averts a planned ACLU lawsuit and reaffirms that all faiths are entitled to religious freedom.
Wicca is a nature-based religion, and the Church’s religious services, educational classes, and other faith-based activities focus on the relationship between the earth and the divine. After the church submitted its application for the zoning permit, the Coventry Planning Department and Planning Commission recommended approval, noting that the church met all requirements and that it “has been holding activities on the property many years and the Planning and Zoning department has not received any complaints since the church’s founding.” Nevertheless, during the public hearing, members of the Zoning Board claimed—without any evidence—that allowing the Church to continue operating would lead to parking problems and pose a fire hazard. In reality, the Church had demonstrated that there was more-than-adequate parking for visitors, the Church follows all fire-safety laws, and the Church’s facilities comply with the fire marshal’s directives.
Stepping in to represent the church, the ACLU and ACLU of Rhode Island pointed out that a refusal to grant the permit would violate the Church’s First Amendment rights, as well as its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that provides heightened protections to houses of worship in zoning proceedings and ensures that governmental entities may not discriminate against any faith. As a result, when the permit came up for a final decision on October 5th, the Zoning Board of Review finally approved the Church’s application. The decision became final this past week after the conclusion of a 20-day appeal period.
“We’re pleased that the Town ultimately did the right thing in this matter,” said Julia Chretien, cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Rhode Island. “However, our clients first submitted their application in December 2021. They should not have had to wait ten months for a proper resolution. Zoning boards should be aware of their legal obligations when it comes to houses of worship and strive to comply with the law immediately.
Gail McHugh, who founded the Church in 2009 with her husband, Darrell Moore, added: “We’re relieved that the town approved our permit. We love our neighborhood, and the Church will continue to be a positive force in our community and world. We are immensely grateful to the ACLU and its legal team for supporting us and the rights of minority religions to exist and freely practice their faith.”
In addition to Ms. Chretien, the Church was represented in negotiations with the town by ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Lynette Labinger and by Heather L. Weaver, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
ACLU of Rhode Island executive director Steven Brown expressed hope that the favorable resolution of the dispute would educate public officials across the state about their obligations under the law to treat religious groups fairly in the implementation of zoning laws.