Next Tuesday, Father Tom Coughlin and a group of seminarians who minister to the deaf will go up against the Castle Hills City Council in hopes to obtain a special permit that would allow them to continue living in their single-family zoned home.
The House of Studies for Deaf Seminarians is comprised of Father Tom Coughlin and seminarians who are either deaf or who minister to the hearing impaired. They reach out to the deaf community and help train priests from around the world to use sign language.
The ministry, which began in New York, struggled to find a reasonably-priced home in California before settling in San Antonio. Within the city, the priest and seminarians found a supportive archdiocese and also an affordable place to live.
Their new home hasn’t offered the solace they desired. The San Antonio Express reports that after purchasing a 9-bedroom, 9-bathroom, two-story home, Father Coughlin learned that the property was actually located in Castle Hills, a suburb of San Antonio.
In order for the seminarians to use the home as a religious community, they would need to obtain a special permit due to the zoning regulation that no more than five unrelated people can live together in the single-family dwelling.
The community states that their residence will house no more than ten seminarians.
"When I came to San Antonio, I was filled with hopes that we will be able to settle and thrive well in the city and that we will be able to move forward to assist deaf seminarians," Fr. Coughlin told the San Antonio Express. “Little did I realize that I would be faced with insurmountable challenges.”
On January 3, Father Coughlin went up against the Castle Hills Zoning Commission which struck down his request for the seminarians to live in the single-family neighborhood. He is planning on taking the issue to Castle Hills City Council who will have the final say next Tuesday.
According to Trinity University urban studies Professor Char Miller, City officials have said they want to focus only on the application of city ordinances, but the case could prompt a larger discussion on social policy.
"This is really about neighborhood dynamics," he said.
Miller told the San Antonio Express that cities often use zoning regulations to control demographics and maintain defined characteristics for their neighborhoods. Castle Hills is trying to maintain a very specific image of single-family living despite a zoning code that allows religious institutions to exist in single-family zoning districts.
Coughlin says it would be a real shame if he and the seminarians were forced to leave. He hopes the House of Studies for Deaf Seminarians can remain in Castle Hills indefinitely, serving the hearing-impaired population from Austin to Corpus Christi, Texas.
"I hope that we could develop a strong home base here in San Antonio and serve the neighbor cities with deaf ministry, God willing," he said. "We are very reluctant to move out to another city as we believe that San Antonio is where we should be, no matter how short the welcome mat is."
Prof. Miller says zoning ordinances that maintain neighborhoods "as uniform and homogeneous," could be inappropriate.
"What's the moral good here? Is it simply sticking to a zoning obligation? Or are we talking about broader social good that these gentlemen happen to be embarked upon. ... I would hope that Castle Hills sees this not as a fly-by-night kind of thing. This isn't a quickie-motel kind of issue. This is actually people who want to do good for the community and just happen to want to live in a neighborhood."
Mayor Marcy Harper, who says the city should enforce its ordinance that prohibits more than five unrelated people living together in a single-family home, says differently.
"It has nothing to do with religion," she said. "It has nothing to do with anything except our ordinances that are in place and the ordinances that we have upheld throughout the years."