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Editorial: Law may block reform

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Queens political activists, including the Queens Civic Congress, may have hit a brick wall in their ongoing effort to amend or abolish the as-of-right rules that allow religions to build houses of worship wherever they choose no matter how a property is zoned.

Even if these civic leaders can succeed in changing the rules for building community facilities, the city will still be bound by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents government from restricting religious institutions through land use. This federal law was unanimously approved in 2002. The activists can forget about getting Washington to rewrite the law.

Much has changed since the as-of-right exemption was created for community facilities. There was a time when the city’s churches and synagogues were deeply connected to the community, according Marci Hamilton, a lawyer from Benjamin Cardozo Law School who specializes in church/state issues.

That, she says, is no longer the cases. Churches and temples no longer draw their congregations from the nearby neighborhood. A Korean church may include parishioners from many parts of Queens. The facilities often have no direct ties to any community.

Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) said he would like to revoke the as-of-right protections and force churches to submit to a “community review.” Although this sounds democratic, there is a chance that the review process could degenerate into the kind of circus that takes place every time someone tries to open a group home in Queens. People already are talking about Queens being “saturated” with new churches.

With the federal law in their way, the best hope for the civics is to create a voluntary mediation process that would appeal to the good intentions of the churches and the community.

Editorial: Let the children phone home

A year after the World Trade Center disaster, children attending the city’s public schools are still forbidden to carry pagers and cell phones. Although this may have been a debatable issue before Sept. 11, 2001, there is no longer any doubt that Queens parents have good reason to send their children to school with a cell phone or at least a pager. On that terrible day, thousands of parents would have welcomed the chance to get in touch with their children.

Of course, not every parent wants his or her kid to carry a phone and not every parent can afford one. But there is no justification for denying families this important communication option. The ban on pagers — and later cell phones — dates back to the early days of the crack epidemic when only doctors and drug dealers carried beepers.

That is obviously no longer the case. Today pagers and cell phones are used by millions of families to keep children in communication with parents who are constantly on the run. And, although the phones and pagers are officially banned, thousands of kids go to school each day with a phone and pager hidden in a coat pocket or backpack, with the knowledge and blessing of their parents.

The people who currently enforce the ban would have a hard time explaining why the rule is still in place. As long as the phones and pagers are turned off during class time, they will not be disruptive.

Posted 7:22 pm, October 10, 2011
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