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Jehovah''s Witnesses Assembly Hall of Southern New Jersey v. Woolwich Township of New Jersey

Decided: February 19, 1988.

JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES ASSEMBLY HALL OF SOUTHERN NEW JERSEY, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
WOOLWICH TOWNSHIP OF NEW JERSEY, A MUNICIPAL TOWNSHIP; THE PLANNING BOARD OF WOOLWICH TOWNSHIP, NEW JERSEY; WALTER BUTLER, SAMUEL BELFIORE, SAMUEL MACCARONE, SAMUEL CASELLA, BARBARA CASELLA, WILLIAM SCHOENER, STEVEN MUCHA, GORDEN YETTER, INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MEMBERS OF THE GOVERNING BODY OF WOOLWICH TOWNSHIP; ALBERT STECHER, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND AS MAYOR OF WOOLWICH TOWNSHIP, NEW JERSEY; AND JOHN DOE, A FICTITIOUS NAME, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS



On appeal from the Superior Court, Law Division, Gloucester County, whose opinion is reported at 220 N.J. Super.. 381 (1987).

King, Gaulkin and Gruccio.

Per Curiam

Defendants Woolwich Township and its representatives (Woolwich) appeal from a final judgment which remands the site plan application of plaintiff Jehovah's Witnesses Assembly Hall of Southern New Jersey (Assembly Hall) to the Woolwich Planning Board "for further consideration in accordance with the Court's written opinion" reported at 220 N.J. Super. 381 (Law Div.1987). That opinion concludes "that the total exclusion of churches and places of worship from residential districts violates the guarantee of freedom of religion as provided for by the New Jersey Constitution" and that Woolwich "cannot totally exclude plaintiff's use." Id. at 387. We find insufficient justification in the present record for those conclusions. We accordingly reverse.

I.

Assembly Hall, as contract purchaser of a 59 acre tract,*fn1 applied for site plan approval to construct a 1500 seat hall in Woolwich, a rural township of 21.48 square miles with a population of approximately 1200. The Hall would be surrounded by a two-story administrative office, storage rooms and meeting room facilities, with a total floor area of 57,000 square feet. The application also sought approval for a 9600 square foot maintenance building, on-site water supply and sewage disposal facilities and 4.89 acres of parking and access driveways. The tract was then located partially in an R-2 (residential) zoning district and partially in an M (manufacturing) district, in both of which churches and places of worship were permitted uses.

During the pendency of the site plan application, Woolwich amended its zoning ordinance. Among other changes, the municipality placed the entire Assembly Hall tract in an R-2 zone and excluded as a permitted use from that zone, and from all other residential zones, any "church or any place of worship including parish house and Sunday school building."

This action was then filed. The Assembly Hall's complaint, as amended, alleged that the zoning amendments were "arbitrary, capricious, discriminatory and unlawful," that they constituted "unlawful, invidious discrimination directed against the religious beliefs of plaintiff," that they were undertaken "in bad faith and for purposes not contemplated by or intended by reasons or purposes behind zoning legislation," that they effected "an unlawful prohibition of the free exercise of religion and unlawful denial of the fundamental rights of freedom of assembly and association" and that the ordinance as amended was "unconstitutionally vague." Invoking various provisions of the United States and New Jersey Constitutions as well as the Federal Civil Rights Act (42 U.S.C. ยง 1983), defendants sought equitable relief and money damages.

Assembly Hall concurrently filed in the Federal District Court a complaint which essentially duplicated the Law Division complaint. By a "reservation of rights" included in the Law Division complaint, Assembly Hall asserted that the District Court "has original jurisdiction of all federal questions, federal civil rights violations and violations of plaintiff's rights under the United States Constitution." Accordingly, plaintiff asked the Law Division "to stay action on all claims raised by the pleadings herein which assert such federal constitutional rights until the United States District Court has ruled on all federal questions." Assembly Hall requested that the Law Division only "consider and rule on all issues and claims of a non-federal and non-constitutional nature raised by the pleadings submitted herewith." Woolwich subsequently moved unsuccessfully to dismiss the federal complaint, which is still pending and undecided.

Shortly after the filing of the Law Division complaint, the trial judge entered a management order directing Assembly Hall to procure a transcript of the Planning Board proceedings and ordering that the case "be tried in open court upon the record below at a date to be set by the court after receipt of the transcript." In keeping with that order, the matter was disposed of at a March 3, 1987 hearing which consisted solely of the argument of counsel. Apparently deferring all other issues to the federal litigation, counsel for Assembly Hall argued that under the New Jersey Constitution "it is an invalid, unreasonable exercise of the zoning prerogative on the part of the Township to simply zone out religious uses from a residential area." The trial judge so held and accordingly remanded the matter to the Planning Board for reconsideration of the site plan application with the directive that the municipality "cannot totally exclude [the Assembly Hall] use." 220 N.J. Super. at 387. Woolwich appeals.

II.

As Justice Clifford pointed out in his concurring opinion in State v. Cameron, 100 N.J. 586 (1985), the question whether a municipality can, through its zoning power, exclude from residential zones churches and similar places of worship is an open one in this state. Id. at 605 (Clifford, J., concurring). It is a "provocative and portentous issue" which calls for "exacting scrutiny" and "hard thought." Id. (Clifford, J., concurring). The trial judge here purported to resolve that issue by announcing, upon a narrowly constructed record and with essentially no findings of fact, a broad and absolute rule that "the total exclusion of churches and places of worship from residential districts violates the guarantee of freedom of ...


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