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Religious Leader: Anti-Mormon Bias May Affect Proposal for Queens Church

By DNAinfo Staff on April 28, 2012 4:57pm

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall disapproved plans for a Mormon church in Flushing.
Queens Borough President Helen Marshall disapproved plans for a Mormon church in Flushing.
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DNAinfo/Nick Hirshon

FLUSHING — A top Queens religious leader fears that anti-Mormon bias may help squash plans to build a house of worship with a 94-foot steeple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Rev. Skip L'Heureux, executive director of the Queens Federation of Churches, said he was concerned that both Community Board 7 and Borough President Helen Marshall rejected plans for the Mormon church at 145-13 33rd Avenue.

The proposal heads next to the city's zoning authority, the Board of Standards and Appeals, which insiders said could weigh in on the church plans as soon as early April.

Mormon leaders need three zoning variances for the 2 1/2-story church that would include a worship area and community room on the ground floor with classrooms and office space on an upper level. Community leaders have argued the building would be out of character in a neighborhood with mostly detached single-family homes.

But L'Heureux said he wondered if an underlying suspicion about Mormons also played a role in the rejections.

"There's a possibility there's some bias that wouldn't have come if it had been a Catholic church, for example," L'Heureux said.

He said coverage of the Mormon faith of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has highlighted some pockets of suspicion towards Mormons.

"There clearly is in the hearts of a number of people in this fair land a great bias and prejudice there," L'Heureux said. "One would have to conclude that Queens would not be bereft of such people."

L'Heureux said he understood the community board's stated concerns about parking and traffic should the church be built, and he clarified that he has no evidence that anti-Mormon bias has affected the proposal.

Current zoning at the site allows a structure of no more than 12,000 square feet. The proposed Mormon church would be 23,097 square feet.

Community board member Tyler Cassell, who chaired a hearing on the church proposal, denied that religious prejudice affected the board's vote. He said he took exception to a newspaper headline that referred to the dispute as a "holy war."

"It has nothing to do with that," Cassell said. "The community board looks at these things with a blind eye."

Cassell said the community board rejected the plans because the church would be "a giant in the neighborhood with little people."

Jeff Mulligan, executive director of the Board of Standards and Appeals, said the BSA also does not take the religious background of applicants into consideration.

"They're all treated equally," he said.

The Mormon congregation's attorney, Daniel Braff, did not return numerous messages seeking comment. Messages left at the church's national headquarters in Utah also went unreturned.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall slammed the proposed church as "out of character and scale with the surrounding area" in a Feb. 23 recommendation sent to the city's zoning agency, the Board of Standards and Appeals.

Marshall wrote that she took into consideration a 2009 rezoning of North Flushing designed to "encourage development that is consistent with the existing character of the neighborhood," which is mostly detached single-family homes.

She also suggested the Mormons instead build on another Flushing lot the church leadership owns at 144-27 Sanford Avenue, where zoning would allow a larger chapel without zoning changes.

City Councilman Peter Koo said he supports the community board and Marshall, but also worries that an out-of-scale apartment building might be built on the site should the Mormon plan be ultimately turned down.

"It creates a large parcel of land which could lend itself to a considerable development," Koo said through a spokesman. "I'm going to watch this area to see what happens."