Across the country, churches are being pushed out or tied down by land-use restrictions.

There was a time, not too long ago, when a church steeple marked the heart of many communities. Rising above houses and trees, it provided the architectural high point of the neighborhood, a reference point for society.

Not anymore. Nowadays, a steeple is just as likely to be ruled out of compliance with city building codes. There are other signs of post-Christian times, but perhaps none is as telling—and tangible—as the struggle to ensure that church buildings remain a functioning part of America’s municipal landscape. Across the U.S., churches are being kept out of neighborhoods or shackled in their ministries by zoning restrictions—and they are fighting back.

“In the middle of this century, the most common victims of emotional responses to the religious use of land were Jewish congregations, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses,” writes church-growth expert Lyle Schaller in The Lutheran magazine. “Today the construction plans of Lutherans, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other old-line religious bodies are being rejected or postponed by opponents who object: ‘Not in my back yard!’ ”

Situations vary. Many new churches that want to build find there is simply no space allotted for them in carefully planned subdivisions. In other cases, churches that existed long before the advent of modern zoning regulations, which became widespread during the post-World War II building surge, want to add on or remodel, but can’t. Limits on building size, lot size, steeple height, traffic flow, parking space—all can snag churches’ plans. Some find their ...

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