Township Blocks Korean Church From Establishing Seminary And Church

Cheltenham, PA – Police in a Pennsylvania township began monitoring a property purchased by a church while local officials threatened $500 per day fines, claiming that use of the land was illegal. The First Korean Church of New York was denied permission to use a property which it purchased in a sheriff’s sale in the Township of Cheltenham for use as a seminary and to hold small church services. The property was previously used as a seminary campus by another organization. The land, zoned for residential use, is more than 30 acres and has a 110 room mansion and another 44 room hall. Now in disrepair, these structures were built more than 100 years ago for an industrialist during what is known as the “Gilded Age.”  

Suit was brought by the seminary. If the property were developed it would be “a very attractive residential use” and could generate “a significant amount of tax revenue,” according to papers filed in court. A federal judge ruled against First Korean finding the loss of tax revenue to the township was a legitimate basis for the denial. The seminary appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

The Pacific Justice Institute filed a friend of the court brief arguing that the denial by the Township violates federal law. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was enacted in 2000 in response to the unequal and often hostile treatment that religious institutions receive at the hands of local governments. RLUIPA requires that a religious assembly be treated on equal terms with secular assemblies or institutions. Arguing on behalf of the seminary, PJI pointed out to the appellate court that the Township’s municipal code allows public schools to erect any building in areas zoned residential without having to even obtain the consent of the Zoning Hearing Board. The brief explains that a seminary is quite similar to a public school campus because both are: (1) institutions, (2) assembly uses, and (3) exempt from taxation under Pennsylvania law. Because of this, blocking First Korean from using its property as a seminary campus was a violation of federal law.

“What is happening to the seminary is the type of unequal treatment that RLUIPA was designed to address,” stated Brad Dacus, president of Pacific Justice Institute. “PJI is committed to helping churches and other religious institutions receive the protections provided under the law,” Dacus continued.