Group Opposes Ordinance to Let Religious Sanctuary Hold Ashes

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A group in support of the separation of church and state sent a letter to the Berkeley City Council yesterday speaking against a proposed ordinance that would allow a religious organization to keep cremated remains on its burial ground.

In the letter, Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the ordinance violates the First Amendment, which states that the government may not make any laws regarding religion.

Zoning laws currently prohibit graveyards, crematoriums, and mausoleums within the city due to potential health hazards.

The ordinance, which was first proposed on Sept. 23 by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, would allow religious organizations to house the ashes, so long as they are stored within an approved structure called a columbaria.

The ordinance was created to allow Northbrae Community Church to include a sanctuary for the remains of parishioners and community members in their formal garden.

The letter also stated that the ordinance provides benefits to religious organizations that are not made available to those who are not religious.

"Under the proposed regulation ... religious groups with a dedicated meeting space would be allowed to inter cremated ashes within that meeting space, whereas the nonreligious would be forced to travel outside the city limits to inter their loved ones," the letter states.

In light of the letter, the ordinance will likely be sent to the district attorney for a second opinion, said Jill Martinucci, legislative assistant to Capitelli. The ordinance is also currently being reviewed by the city's planning commission.

Martinucci said the original intent of the ordinance was unrelated to the issue of church and state.

"Clearly we were just trying to accommodate a modest proposal by a community institution," Martinucci said.

But Barry Lynn, president of Americans United, said the ordinance clearly conflicted with the U.S. Constitution's neutral stance on religion.

"Any standards you set have to be equally applicable to religious and non-religious groups," Lynn said. "As long as people are treated equally, there's not a problem. But as soon as you treat people unequally, there's a problem."

City spokesperson Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said the ordinance should go before the City Council within the next two months.

According to Martinucci, the issues raised by the letter would be considered before the ordinance came before the City Council.

"I think somebody may have brought up a legitimate concern, and we're sending it off the district attorney to see if we in fact gave a benefit to religious institutions," Martinucci said. "Really, just some institutions get special benefits in our zoning code."


Rachel Gross is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected]

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