Nadege Dutes inaugurated her Church of God of Holiness in Christ in 1993 in Miami. By late last year, the Haitian Pentecostal congregation had grown to 165 people and outgrown the leased building they occupied.
About three miles away, the congregation found a suitable spot to relocate in the Little Haiti section of Miami: a 9,400-square-foot former commercial refrigeration showroom and office building. Many of the parishioners live in Little Haiti and do not own cars, and the new site is within walking distance.
Because the building did not meet specified church zoning qualifications, Dutes and other representatives of the congregation sought a variance from the city. Zoning commissioners granted unanimous approval last October. In November, the Church of God in Christ paid a $40,000 down payment of the $240,000 purchase price.
But then Robert Raley, whose Take One Lounge shares a common boundary parking lot with the proposed church, convinced city officials to stop the congregation from occupying the building.
Raley cited a city ordinance—originally designed to safeguard churches—that prohibits nude entertainment businesses from operating within 500 feet of a church. Take One Lounge customers buy liquor and pay to see women strip and dance naked.
IMPROVING THE NEIGHBORHOOD? "I've been here 24 years," Raley told Christianity Today. "It would be reverse discrimination if a church is allowed to open up next to me."
However, the 36-year-old Dutes, who immigrated to the United States in 1973, counters, "The church may not be paying taxes, but we're preventing young people from taking drugs and killing. If the church moves there, we believe the area will be improved."
For the time being, Miami zoning officials have sided with Raley.
"If he ever wanted to remodel the lounge, he couldn't," says chief zoning inspector Juan Gonzalez. "We're trying to work out some sort of compromise."
Until about 40 years ago, churches in most U.S. cities had an inherent right to build anywhere without enduring a lengthy and often expensive public hearing process. But now, even though a congregation may be small and wanting to open in a blighted region, city officials no longer believe churches have intrinsic worth.
Increasingly, congregations wanting to relocate to a new area or to expand existing facilities are met with resistance from both neighbors and city officials anxious about increased traffic, a decreased tax base, and parking and noise problems.
Most church leaders want to be good neighbors, but some have encountered as much opposition as if they had proposed opening a nuclear waste dump.
"There's a Haitian church on every block around here," Raley says. "Let 'em go somewhere else."
Churches, however, unlike business and industry, are constitutionally protected. Recently, several municipalities have been ordered to pay damages as the price of learning the First Amendment.
SEEKING EQUAL TREATMENT: "Half of the city codes in this country do not allow churches as a matter of right to locate anywhere without a special permit," says John W. Mauck, a Christian zoning attorney in Chicago. "There's a general feeling that they don't belong in residential areas because of traffic, and they don't belong in commercial areas because they don't generate sales tax or pay property taxes."
Such an attitude has led to a subtle bias against churches, Mauck believes. He is handling a suit filed in U.S. District Court in 1994 on behalf of 40 area churches, Civil Liberties for Urban Believers (CLUB) v. City of Chicago (CT, May 15, 1995, p. 49). The suit alleges that a city ordinance discriminates because other assembly-type uses, such as a sports arena, community center, and meeting hall, are allowed in commercial areas where churches must obtain a special permit. He cites violation of the Constitution's equal protection clause.
Mauck notes that there has not been a new large church built in downtown Chicago in three decades, primarily due to a state law prohibiting the sale of liquor—in stores, taverns, and restaurants—within 100 feet of a church. As with the Miami regulation, the Chicago ordinance effectively prevented churches, rather than businesses, from opening. An Illinois law that went into effect last year after pressure from the CLUB suit grants exemptions for churches in cities with a population exceeding 75,000.
Theodore Wilkinson, pastor of Christ Center, a full-gospel African-American congregation, is one of seven pastors who is a litigant in the CLUB suit. Christ Center is meeting in a former funeral home, seven miles south of where Wilkinson had signed a contract to buy a former restaurant-supply business building. In 1992, the church had sought a special-use permit in the commercial district that includes buildings for the Salvation Army and Olive Branch Mission. But city officials claimed the building existed in a "development enterprise zone," even though the owner had been unable to sell it for four years.
"An alderman told us if we found a location 'anywhere else,' we would be welcome," Wilkinson recalls. So Christ Center found a onetime photography studio five blocks away and lined up financing. But city-planning officials argued that the neighborhood might someday become a "nightclub district" and the presence of a church would inhibit such "development."
In a February 1996 preliminary decision, Judge Wayne R. Andersen ruled that Christ Center and other CLUB plaintiffs had "sufficiently alleged a substantial burden on the free exercise of their religion" and "sustained substantial financial injury" because of the ordeal. Christ Center has lost 75 of its 250 people and spent more than $20,000 on attorney costs, appraisal fees, zoning applications, and title changes. A final ruling is imminent.
His Word to All Nations, another church in the CLUB litigation, is also suing Alderman Patrick Huels. Andersen ruled that Huels maneuvered to pass a city ordinance rezoning a branch banking facility to a manufacturing district after His Word had paid a $25,000 deposit on the property. Chicago churches are banned in manufacturing districts, even though lodges, community centers, taverns, and restaurants are permitted.
MORE THAN LEGAL MATTERS: Mauck says more than politics is involved in legal battles that persist for years. He says economic, ethnic, and spiritual matters play a role.
Ethnicity is a factor in some church zoning disputes, as in the Take One Lounge squabble in Miami attests.
Christians also can become protective of their turf. For instance, a traditional Catholic enclave may not take kindly to a new charismatic church opening, or whites may be wary of an African-American or Korean church moving into the neighborhood. "In housing, communities were forced by the federal government to eradicate such bias long ago," Mauck says.
There also is an economic element involved. For example, a middle-class neighborhood may perceive a fast-growing immigrant Hispanic congregation as poorer, and therefore a threat to neighborhood property values.
"The newer Pentecostals, the fundamentalists, the sects, need to have sharp elbows because they don't have a place at the table," Mauck says.
Mauck does not underestimate the spiritual dimension, saying prayer and fasting are important elements in any zoning battle. "Spiritual warfare is involved whenever a congregation is growing," Mauck says. "The people who are opposing the plan may not be conscious agents, but there is demonic opposition to what God is trying to do."
TIGHT GOVERNMENT BUDGETS: For local planning officials, it is often what is seen rather than unseen that troubles them.
"Governments everywhere are increasingly strapped on budgets," says Michael K. Whitehead, general counsel for the Southern Baptist Convention Christian Life Commission in Kansas City, Missouri. "To let churches grow and take up more property means losing the tax base."
As a result, many cities now are extracting a pound of flesh whenever churches want to expand. For example, a church may be forced to pay $250,000 toward a new highway running near the property.
"Churches are being treated like business developers," Whitehead says. "It's almost legal extortion."
Likewise, those living in the neighborhoods often feel threatened by a new church.
"Unchurched people are concerned about decreased property values and dangers to the children because of increased traffic congestion," says Richard Hammar, legal counsel with the Assemblies of God in Springfield, Missouri, and editor of Church Law & Tax Report.
Neighborhood fears—especially in well-groomed suburbs—are likely to intensify as churches become more involved in providing welfare services such as feeding the homeless and rehabilitating drug abusers (CT, April 7, 1997, p. 46).
DISGRUNTLED NEIGHBORS: The 2,000-member College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, had plans to build a new gymnasium, fellowship hall, additional education rooms, and staff offices north of its existing sanctuary. The proposed project included demolishing two houses the church owns and uses as offices.
But around two dozen area citizens believed the project would ruin the residential feel of the neighborhood because of the overwhelming presence of an "institutional-looking building." They have asked College Church to build in a more open area to the south, in another block beyond the congregation's main parking lot—even though the church does not own all that land.
"They wanted to shoehorn a huge $7 million facility into a small space," says Norm Ewert, a neighborhood resident who is a business and economics professor at the adjacent Wheaton College. "A big gym would dramatically increase traffic."
College Church is one of three large churches in a three-block area to have purchased and leveled nearby homes in the past decade.
"There's a steady demolition of houses by those who are able to spend the money to buy the land," Ewert says. "We are concerned that incremental acts by these institutions effectively change the character of the community."
The church may split the project and expand to the north and south. "We've been looking at alternatives since the interaction with the neighbors," says College Church associate pastor Marc Maillefer. "We're not going to allow a building to alienate us from the neighbors."
While Wheaton city officials have placed more restrictions on churches due to residential complaints, Maillefer says they also have become more flexible. For instance, the city allows churches to use bumper-to-bumper parking in their parking lots during services as part of the formula for the required number of spaces.
"The most common way churches can avoid conflict is by talking to their neighbors," says parish consultant Lyle E. Schaller of Naperville, Illinois. "Most residential neighborhoods would prefer a church to a cement factory or strip shopping center."
OBEYING THE LAW: Conversely, some churches have been intentionally antagonistic in complying with normal municipal regulations. If every other new building in a city must have a 42-inch-wide door to meet a fire safety code, churches should too.
"Many churches buy property without even thinking about zoning classifications," Hammar says. "They need to make sure that contingent uses such as childcare, a school, and feeding the homeless are allowed."
Brad Dacus, western regional coordinator for the Rutherford Institute in Sacramento, adds, "A church that responds to questions raised by local government up front is much more likely not to have to deal with conflict down the road."
CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: While church leaders may be guilty of ignorance, city officials are sometimes no better informed.
"Zoning boards, city councils, and city attorneys need to be aware that religious freedom is guaranteed in the Bill of Rights," Hammar says. "They need to realize there is a difference constitutionally between First Baptist Church and Wal-Mart."
Sometimes a simple letter from an organization such as the Rutherford Institute is enough to make a city comply.
"It costs cities a chunk of money to go to court, too," Schaller says.
Dacus believes that many reasons municipalities list to halt church projects in undeveloped areas are smokescreens. "Increased traffic and noise are typical lines towns use to stop projects," Dacus says. "Whenever you build anything you're going to have that."
COUNTING THE COST: Churches need to be prepared to litigate if unreasonable delays occur, according to Schaller. At the state level, he says, an appeal costs at least $50,000.
"Most times the congregation could win, but they can't afford the appeal," Schaller says. "It takes too much money—and time—so they make concessions."
Even if a church sues and wins, the delay can be expensive. Mauck represented Grace Community Church in Bethel, Connecticut, which won a four-year legal zoning permit battle, but by that time construction costs had risen $300,000.
In addition, a zoning dispute that lingers often causes key people in the church to question pastoral leadership, to stop tithing, or to leave.
"Very often church leadership is inhibited by a congregation in terms of pressing forward," Mauck says. "Even if local officials are in violation of the Constitution, some people feel taking anything to court is unbiblical."
PAYING DAMAGES: When a church does prevail in court, municipalities may have to pay damages. In July, a jury in Clark County, Washington, will determine how much the county must pay for shutting down Open Door Baptist Church.
In January 1995, county officials issued an order prohibiting Open Door from holding services in a building the church had used since 1990. It had been built as a church in 1905, but used as an art studio from 1980 to 1990.
County zoning officials told church leaders they had to pay $5,500 in nonrefundable fees and obtain a conditional use permit before worshiping.
But in April 1996, Washington Superior Court Judge Roger A. Bennett sided with the church, ruling that "religious organizations occupy a privileged position in our law" and "government has an obligation to work with a church to streamline its bureaucratic process."
"The prosecuting attorney made it clear that they were going to put me in jail if I didn't pay," recalls Open Door pastor Rocky Shanks. "We refused to pay."
Before Bennett's ruling, a hearing examiner barred church members from being on the property, and the congregation met elsewhere.
"No other church in the area stood up for us," Shanks says. "If the churches in our area would have showed support, there's no way it would have gone so far or taken so long. I think they were scared."
Dacus believes zoning will be one of the major battlegrounds for Christians in the next decade as churches fight courts in order to provide services ranging from homeless shelters to Christian schools.
"There will always be those in the community who will cast a critical eye toward the church standing up for its constitutional and statutory rights," Dacus says. "But churches will be worse off in the long run if they allow arbitrary barriers to be erected by communities."
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