Arizona's New 'Free Exercise Of Religion' Bill Limits Zoning Rules On Placement Of Religious Facilities

08/18/2010 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As the debate rages over a New York City Islamic cultural center and mosque being constructed two blocks from Ground Zero, Arizona -- a state recently maligned by many for its supposed intolerance of Hispanics due to a tough new immigration law -- is taking its own steps to minimize restrictions on the location of its religious facilities.

House Bill 2596 (PDF link), went into effect July 29th with the purpose of prohibiting local governments from preventing the building of religious places of worship due to existing religion-based zoning codes or land-use rules. New religious facilities are still held to the standards of "religion-neutral zoning," aspects such as size, height or proximity to hazardous external factors.

"If a city has a religiously neutral standard that says nobody can have a building above this height, that would still be allowed," Center for Arizona Policy attorney Deborah Sheasby explained to the Arizona Republic. "But if they said, 'We'll allow a hotel to be above this height and a business complex to be above this height but we won't let a church steeple be above this height,' that wouldn't be religiously neutral."

According to the Arizona Republic:

The law, considered the first of its kind, was backed by most of the Legislature's Republicans and opposed by most Democrats, who argued that it gives religious institutions preferential treatment over the concerns of cities or residents.

Under such a rule, new mosques such as the ones that are being proposed and protested in New York, Tennessee, Wisconsin and California, could not be denied in the state of Arizona. Neither could other places of worship for that matter.

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