Kuhl v. Board of Adjustment of The Township of Montclair

A-5987-95T1 (N.J. Super. App. Div. 1997) (Unpublished)
  • Opinion Date: November 14, 1997

MUNICIPALITIES; ZONING—In a zoning matter, when a court finds that a house of worship has inherently beneficial uses, it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

A township’s Board of Adjustment was sued after it granted a use variance in a residential area to a religious organization. The complaint alleged that granting the use variance violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

The Appellate Division affirmed the trial court decision dismissing the complaint, holding that the grant of the use variance was within the Board’s discretion. The standard for determining whether the Establishment Clause was violated was set forth in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971). The three prong test determines whether the challenged law or conduct: (1) has a secular purpose; (2) has the principal or primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion; or (3) excessively entangles government with religion. The Court held that the treatment given to the religious organization was no different than that given to non-religious, non-profit organizations, and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause. The Court stated that government gets far more entangled with religion than by simply granting a use variance. After stating that a grant of a use variance is presumed valid and may only be set aside if the grant was arbitrary, unreasonable or capricious, the Court found that the Board in this case acted reasonably. Additionally, a use variance in a residential zone for a house of worship is permitted by state statute upon a showing of special reason. N.J.S.A. 40:55D-70(d). The statute also requires that the variance be granted without substantial detriment to the public good and without substantially impairing the intent and purpose of the zone plan. The Court determined that the Board satisfied all statutory criteria. Citing prior similar cases, the Court then stated that a house of worship has inherently beneficial uses and is of direct benefit to the general population. Although other parts of Montclair were adequately zoned for houses of worship, the facts showed that the religious organization in this case made an exhaustive search but was unable to find another compatible location. Finally, the Court found that the Board properly balanced the public interest and had attempted to mitigate any detrimental impact.