How Zoning Laws Can Affect a Church

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Local zoning laws can have a profound effect on the shape and feel of a community. As local economies change over time, officials sometimes will update zoning laws to encourage new development and growth. Churches can sometimes find themselves in conflict with zoning rules. Especially for churches that own their own building, or that are contemplating purchasing one, zoning needs to be among the things church managers keep an eye on.

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 prohibits zoning laws that discriminate against churches and other places of religious activities. Under the law, it is unlawful for most localities to adopt zoning laws that “substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies or institutions absent the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.”

The “compelling governmental interest” standard leaves open the possibility that a locality can zone against churches and other venues where large groups might gather, such as a convention hall or a theater, provided that the rules are given adequate justification and don’t merely discriminate against places of worship. There are a variety of reasons why zoning laws might impact a church’s operations at a particular location:

  • Traffic and parking concerns.
  • Demand for dedicated commercial space.
  • Public safety concerns.
  • Issues with sewers or water supplies.

For a church that is considering a purchase of land, it’s important to examine existing zoning laws before making the purchase. In some cases it may be necessary to pursue an exemption or change to existing rules to allow for the full scope of a church’s planned activities. For example, if a zoning regulation prohibits any form of child care, but the church wishes to operate a Sunday school, a special exception may be needed. A church that finds itself faced with problematic changes to zoning laws that will affect its ability to operate in its current location, and potentially harm the value of its real estate, may have options for opposing the measure.

The Church Law Center of California counsels religious and secular nonprofits on a broad range of matters. If your church is facing zoning problems we may be able to help. Call us today at (949) 689-0437 or reach out to us through our contact page.

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