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Using building as a church

Can any building be used as a church?

Editors Reply: The practical answer to this question is no. In theory, as you know if you read our church zoning article on this site, the courts are very reluctant to rein in churches in any regard, lest their action result in inhibiting any particular religious practice.

However, in reality, churches have to deal with some zoning regulations. In some locations they may have to deal with particular kinds of governmental licensing for activities that are not strictly part of religious activity, such as child care.

Let's deal with the zoning part of this. Most zoning ordinances do set out minimum parking requirements for churches, based on square footage of a building. So many buildings would not be able to be used as churches because the property does not allow for enough land for off-street parking. Churches might circumvent this issue by assembling several lots, however.

As we have said, often churches are required to obtain a conditional use permit or some other type of specialized permission, even though they routinely are allowed to locate in residential districts now.

The particularities of any building might make it difficult to meet the conditions that a municipality might want to impose. Conditional use permits sometimes limit hours of operation, noise, signs, parking location, or other operational details that it would be difficult for a particular church to comply with.

Just thinking of parking and possible conditional use requirements, it's hard to think that a single-family home in the middle of a block occupied entirely by single-family homes is going to be able to meet all zoning requirements for a church.

We know there are many house churches, or organizations that aim to stay small. However, it's hard for us to conceive of a church that would agree to a limitation of four additional cars for four hours on a Sunday, for example. Such a course of action might seem delightful on the surface of it to the organizers of such a church, but most would want to think twice about agreeing to such a long-term stipulation.

Another factor is that typically churches have been allowed in residential zoning districts, and now often are allowed in commercial districts. Courts have been lenient toward churches in these particular districts. Permitted use status may or may not be granted within an industrial district, or specialized transportation or warehouse district.

Granted, we might be a little absurd in using an industrial zone example, but you did ask about any building.

Safety regulations also could enter into the answer to this question. Many municipalities treat a church as a place of public assembly, and therefore a place that is subject to fire inspection.

Fire safety standards might require particular alarm systems, sprinkler systems, and extra means of egress that might be very impractical within particular buildings, based on layout and construction methods.

In sum, a determined church probably could figure out a way to legally occupy and use almost any particular building, but practical and economic constraints in meeting parking and conditional use requirements of a zoning ordinance, or public safety ordinances, including fire inspection requirements, make it extremely unlikely that rational decision makers would pursue the use of some existing buildings for churches.

Since there are many available locations in most communities, most churches will not go to extreme lengths to fit into a particular building.


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Church Practices
by: Anonymous

A radical church is renting a building on public land. They specialize in recruiting and saving alcohol and drug abuse individuals. The neighborhood is poor and sees a real problem with adding another problem to the local drug culture. What kind of permits would be required if they set up in the parking lot to advertise and bring in outside people into a struggling community?

Editors Comment: A variety of permits possibly could be required, depending on the exact activity. If a sign were to be erected, whether permanent or temporary, those probably would be governed by the zoning ordinance or possibly a free-standing sign ordinance. Signs typically are given permits.

If you mean that this church proposes an outdoor rally or parade, those events sometimes also are subject to signs.

But really, it's pretty likely that no permit of any kind would be required for a lessee (that means a holder of a lease) to set up a table and some chairs on the parking lot and try to talk to people who pass by. In most cities that probably could go on for week after week, with no interference from the city government.

Most importantly, you say this building is on "public land." If you are using that term in it strict meaning, you are saying that a governmental entity owns the land and has leased it out. What does the government or agency say about this? Is the church's behavior in violation of the lease?

Our advice is to contact the government or agency of the government that owns this land, tell them what is going on, and ask for clarification on the terms of the lease. Also you can ask your city about permit requirements. Hope these comments will get you started.

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