On the site of an abandoned tomato plant in rural Collier County, Fla., Dom­ino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan is attempting to create a Catholic paradise. Ave Maria, an unincorporated planned town, boasts streets named after saints and is the site of Ave Maria University, a conservative Catholic institution.

According to some critics, it’s also the site of a miniature theocratic fiefdom. Religious communities aren’t exactly a new phenomenon in the United States. Since the earliest days of European colonization, members of various faith groups have regarded the United States as a potential haven from persecution and a place to carve out their own sectarian utopias. 

As a consequence, many started settlements with explicitly sectarian motivations and laws that reflected those beliefs. The Puritans built their “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts; the towns of Rehoboth, Del., and Zion, Ill., also have theocratic roots. That’s true of some states, too: Pennsylvania used to be a refuge for Quakers, and Catholics had similar ambitions for Maryland.

But those mini-theocracies collapsed as outsiders moved in and religious pluralism took hold. Building theocracies is against the law – or so most Americans believe.

Despite this, there are still American towns whose governmental structures and legal systems resemble religious texts more than they do the founding document of our democracy.

Hasidic enclaves in upstate New York are routinely accused of flouting First Amendment standards by enforcing public gender segregation and using tax funds for private religious schools. And on the border between Arizona and Utah, the Short Creek community functions as a stronghold for the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and is now under federal investigation for numerous constitutional violations. (See “American Theocracy?” Jan. 2013 Church & State.)

Soon, Ave Maria could be too.

There are certain parallels between Ave Maria and Short Creek. FLDS leaders founded the latter in 1935 in order specifically to house their polygamist community; establishing the secular rule of law never rated as a consideration. Monaghan, a life-long Catholic, opened Ave Maria in 2005, two years after he founded Ave Maria University (the school relocated to Florida from Michigan in 2007). As the FLDS followed its leaders to Short Creek so too did Monaghan’s to Ave Maria: The Miami New Times reports that roughly 2,000 people trailed the mogul’s vision to Florida.

A third and final parallel: Monaghan, like those long dead FLDS prophets, hasn’t been shy about his sectarian vision for the town.

“There is not going to be any pornographic television in Ave Maria town. If you go to the drug store and you want to buy the pill or the condoms or contraception, you won’t be able to get that in Ave Maria Town,” he told the Wall Street Journal in 2005.

There’s evidence that he has succeeded, too. According to Truthout, a political news website, Monaghan blocked Naples Community Hospital from opening medical offices in the town. The reason, the hospital said, is because its doctors would not agree to stop providing abortion referrals or prescribing contraception. Residents have also reported that condoms are not sold in the town’s groceries and pharmacies.

The one-time pizza peddler’s Cath­olic paradise might be politically pristine. But it isn’t completely isolated from the outside world, and that means it relies on county resources. Families who don’t wish to send their children to the town’s parochial schools send them to county public institutions. When crimes are committed (even Ave Maria is not immune from theft and other sins), county police must intervene, as the town has no police force of its own.

About 2,500 people now live in Ave Maria, without public schools, a police force – and even a representative form of government. That’s because Monaghan didn’t just found the town. He owns it, alongside the Barron Collier development corporation.

The Naples Daily News reports that in 2004, mere months before Ave Maria came into being, Monaghan and Barron Collier directly lobbied former Florida governor Jeb Bush for a change to the state’s laws on planned developments. Developments originally belonged to the founding corporation for 10 years; after that period, they held elections to fill town council and mayoral roles. Town government in planned developments would eventually be identical to governments in other municipalities, thus ensuring that residents enjoyed full constitutional rights and democratic government.

But that’s no longer the case. Bush acquiesced and backed a law eliminating the requirement that development owners must surrender control of their investments. Now, they can retain that control indefinitely, and that means Monaghan and Barron-Collier could own Ave Maria in perpetuity. The town is officially known as the Ave Maria Community Stewardship District and is governed by a board of residents.

That governing board of residents isn’t as democratic as it might sound. It bears little resemblance to democratically-elected town councils; in fact, board members are not elected at all. In a 2009 series on the town’s idiosyncratic government, the Daily News reported that Monaghan and Barron Collier have handpicked each member of the board.

Although Barron Collier insisted to the Daily News that it does intend to relinquish control of the town, it’s unclear when it plans to do so. There is no established timeframe for this action, and with no legal requirement that any handover ever occurs, Ave Maria might never hold public elections.

The law that put Ave Maria under private control for the indeterminate future also bestows Monaghan with unprecedented authority over its affairs. That includes the authority to block entities like Naples Community Hospital from opening offices in town, for reasons that would be dismissed out of hand in other, more secular places.

Monaghan’s attempt to control every facet of life in Ave Maria even extends to the town’s Catholic church: Ave Maria is the only privately owned parish in the world. Officially designated a “quasi-parish,” the church (also designed by Monaghan) is intended to act as the center of town, but it has doubled as a center of controversy, too. According to the Miami New Times, Monaghan ran afoul of the local Diocese of Venice after its bishop, Frank Dewane, refused to let him name his own pastor.

Experts are concerned that both the law and Monaghan’s application of it may violate the U.S. Constitution. Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Florida branch told Truthout’s Eleanor J. Bader that although people have the legal right to choose to abide by certain religious practices, that right doesn’t include an exemption to the First Amendment.

“We want to respect people’s choices,” he said, “but when government gives authority to religious groups to govern in accordance with religious rules, it goes too far and violates the Constitution.”

Some Ave Maria residents reject Simon’s concerns. In a recent editorial, the Ave Maria Herald defended the town’s unusual arrangement.

“The main reason for the perpetuation of this falsehood that people in Ave Maria can’t vote is that there is a special district established by Florida statute that manages Ave Maria’s infrastructure – mainly major roads, irrigation and storm water drainage,” wrote the Herald’s editor, Patricia Sette. (According to a 2010 article in Gulfshore Business, Sette is a conservative Catholic who moved to the town to follow her son, an Ave Maria University student.)

That, of course, doesn’t address the lack of an established timeline for the handover. And while she also asserted that “contraception is not banned” in town, Sette failed to mention Monaghan’s dogmatically motivated decision to reject Naples Community Hospital offices and his refusal to let stores sell it.

Monaghan and Barron Collier haven’t commented on either situation, leaving civil liberties advocates without many answers about potential constitutional violations in Ave Maria. 

Alex Luchenitser, Americans Uni­ted’s associate legal director, said it’s important to keep a close eye on the town.

“It’s certainly legal for people to choose to live near their co-religionists,” he said. “But it’s a matter of concern to us that Tom Monaghan established this town with such a clearly sectarian motivation and has the legal authority to make sweeping decisions for it based on his beliefs.”

Monaghan has demonstrated a pen­chant for using his famously strict interpretation of Catholicism to test the boundaries of First Amendment law. He successfully filed suit against the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate, arguing that his for-profit Domino’s Farms business should be eligible for an exemption.

His other project, Ave Maria University, has already received an exemption to the mandate but is still engaged in a legal battle over the terms of that exemption.

Luchenitser, who helped prepare Americans United’s legal case against the Domino’s Farms and Ave Maria exemption requests, said that Monag­han’s brand of religion shouldn’t grant him the right to establish an official religion in any town – even if he owns it.

“Monaghan can buy a university and maybe even a town, but he can’t buy his way out of obeying the Constitution,” he said.