Ridley Park United Methodist Church v. Ridley Park Borough Zoning Hearing Board, 2007 Pa. Commw. LEXIS 134

A church has the burden of showing that its daycare center is a fundamental religious activity under the Commonwealth’s Religious Freedom Protection Act.
Case Details:

A Church located in an R-1 Residential District filed an application for a special exception to operate a daycare center. The Zoning Hearing Board (ZHB) denied the application on the basis that the center did not meet the special exception requirement for a parochial educational use.

The Church appealed to the trial court and then amended its appeal to have the matter remanded so that the ZHB could determine whether provisions of the Religious Freedom Protection Act (RFPA) were applicable.  The trial court remanded, and the Board granted the special exception requested by the Church on the basis that the RFPA was applicable and denying the application would substantially burden the Church’s exercise of religion.

Objectors appealed to the trial court, which affirmed, and then to the Commonwealth Court, arguing, among other things, that the ZHB erred when it granted the special exception to operate the daycare. Denying the Church’s request would not violate the Church’s right under the RFPA because the Church’s free exercise of religion was not substantially burdened  and it was not denied the right to engage in activities that were fundamental to its religion.

The Commonwealth Court reversed and held that the Church failed to meet its burden of proving that it was denied a reasonable opportunity to engage in activities that were fundamental to its religion.  In addition, the lower tribunals found that the lack of a daycare would impose a minimal, not a substantial, burden on the Church’s fundamental religious activities: the Church was still free to teach Sunday school, vacation bible school, religious workshops, coffee hours and counseling. Accordingly, the Church failed to satisfy the provisions of the RFPA and the special exception permit was correctly denied.

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