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Some US cities grapple with an unusual problem: too many churches

They are challenging a 2000 federal law that gave houses of worship more room to grow.

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It's rush hour in southeast Orlando – Sunday rush hour, that is.

About a dozen churches are within a few miles of one another, and more are under construction. Neighbors venturing out for bagels and other errands find themselves stuck in traffic, heads bowed not in faith but frustration. Some complain that the traffic persists all week, as religious, youth, sports, and other activities draw crowds after work and school.

"It's ridiculous," says Pat DeLanger, an accountant who was about to climb into her car on a recent Sunday with her teen-age daughter after a service at St. Isaac Jogues Catholic Church. She lives less than a mile away, but expects her Sunday morning drive to stretch to 30 minutes once construction on another church across the street is complete. "We live right there. We probably could walk faster."

While communities traditionally zone against houses of ill-repute, not houses of worship, frustrations have grown since 2000, when then-President Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law doesn't exempt churches from zoning regulations, per se. But when religious groups say the rules would create "a substantial burden," officials must show a compelling reason for the limits. Sometimes, the results leave neighborhoods feeling helpless in the face of ecclesiastical development.

Across the country, local governments are challenging the law in court, says Marci Hamilton, a church-state scholar at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. She believes the issue probably will reach the US Supreme Court.

"It's happening all over the country," Ms. Hamilton says. "I get an e-mail from a new neighborhood daily. It's unbelievable because of this law what religious entities are willing to impose on residential neighborhoods."


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