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Auburn church and city in zoning dispute

Auburn's First Presbyterian Church is in a dispute with city officials who say the church is operating a commercial business in a residentially zoned property.

The dispute started in July when the city cited First Presbyterian and told the church not to hold its annual summer glee camp at the church's historic Case Mansion, saying it’s a commercial enterprise being conducted in a residentially zoned area. The camp charges $100 dollars per child to help cover the costs of the program and materials.

Syracuse lawyer Andrew Leja, who is representing First Presbyterian, says the church was issued a special permit in the 1970s allowing them to host events. The church has filed a brief in court protesting the citation.

"That permit has remained in play,” said Leja. “The activities that have been going on at the church now are actually of a lesser scope than what went on with the church for the past 30-35 years."

Leja says the church has never used the program to make a profit.

"We pointed to, in our brief, at least 26 different examples of commercial activities ongoing in [these kind of residential] zones, and the city has allowed to exist through special permitting, through pre-existing non-conforming usage or whatnot."  

The Liberty Institute, a national religious freedom group, is also helping represent the church. Leja says the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protects churches from zoning discrimination.

The city has until January 23 to respond to the brief. The city has said it cannot comment about the matter because of the ongoing litigation.