God Dammed

Already saturated with houses of worship, Opa-locka tells the Jehovah's Witnesses, "Thou shalt not build"

Though such a bias is unconstitutional when it fosters discrimination toward one group, Opa-locka is probably within its rights to exercise its municipal muscle, according to Andy Kayton, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. "Barring a church entirely from city limits would be very controversial, but I don't think a church has an absolute right to construct a building where they see fit," Kayton ventures. "A city has the right to have reasonable zoning ordinances." But there is no simple answer, he cautions. "There is some balance that has to be drawn between the legitimate zoning rights of a city and the free-exercise rights of a church and its members."

Ernie Neal says there are areas of Opa-locka, such as the industrial section on the southeast side, that are better able to handle more churches and their attendant increases in traffic and in demands on electricity and other utilities. "But the fact is we have too many churches," Neal stresses. "And I have to look at them a little differently. I have to make sure the property and the neighborhood can handle it."

And Neal is quick to point out that Opa-locka has not excluded churches entirely. Peaceful Missionary Baptist Church, the only other religious organization to have requested a zoning change in the past year, was granted permission to build at 2230 Ali-baba Ave., in an area that had previously been zoned industrial.

None of which placates Gregory Olds in the least. "How fair is it to burden one religion when other religions in the community are not so burdened?" Olds asks. "We have taxpaying residents who have the right to practice their religion in Opa-locka, and we can't do that because we don't have a house of worship. [The nearest Kingdom Hall is in Carol City, four miles away.] Part of the way Jehovah's Witnesses practice is by inviting other people to the Kingdom Hall to study the Bible. Imagine this scenario: You and I are residents of Opa-locka and I come to you and invite you to our house of worship, and we have to go somewhere else in Dade County. That is clearly a restriction, a hindrance, a burden on the free expression of religion.

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