Permit for Church Services in a Home

Last Updated: August 8, 2020

Visitor Question: I have a neighbor that is holding church services in his home and we can not park our car. Do they need a permit to hold services in their home?

Editors' Reply

Like so many other community development questions, the answer is: it depends.

First, does your community have a zoning ordinance (law) in effect? If not, you're probably out of luck. In that case you'll have to talk with your neighbor and ask them to be considerate about leaving you a designated parking space, and also address in the same conversation any other problems you're having because of the church service.

Second, if you are living in a city, township, town, village, or county with zoning, you have to inform yourself about what the zoning ordinance requires for a church service. Zoning ordinances have definitions sections, and believe it or not, some will define a church.

Be aware that just because someone is having a home Bible study or other spiritual discussion, complete with singing, the law may not consider that a church.

It's a matter of scale here. People in most of the world are able to have guests in their home to practice religion, listen to music, or pursue any other aspect of culture.

So if the number of people gathering in your neighbor's home is no greater than a large family picnic or holiday dinner, there is no sign advertising a church, and there are no public invitations out in the world that you can discover, most towns will consider this a private gathering and won't interfere by calling it a church and trying to bring it under the control of the zoning ordinance.

To find out, ask someone in authority in your town, such as an elected mayor, council person, city clerk, or whatever elected or appointed official you can find. They will direct you to the right person to understand zoning, whether you have an ordinance, and whether what is happening next to you would be considered a church.

Now, let's just suppose that you live where there is a zoning law in effect. I always got a chuckle out of driving into the small towns in upper New York State and seeing a sign for a Zoning Law in Effect. I never did figure out who they were trying to impress or turn away.

If the zoning official (and maybe that's the mayor in reality in small towns) says that the gathering at your neighbor's house isn't a church, treat it like any other dispute with a neighbor and try to reach a compromise.

If the zoning officials thinks the group event next door is in reality a church, then learn what zoning districts permit churches. This means that you have to learn the zoning category that pertains to your property and your neighbor's property.

If a church is not permitted "as of right," meaning everyone in that zoning district has a right to do a certain thing, then you can start being concerned about what is required for a church.

Sometimes a special use permit or a conditional use permit may be required. (These also are called just special uses or conditional uses.)

Often a "conditional" use permit requires certain "conditions," which might include a limit to the amount of on-street parking or may require the provision of off-street parking spaces.

A conditional use permit also could address concerns such as noise, which sometimes occur with churches. (See our church zoning page.)

The procedure for obtaining these permits varies, but most commonly in the U.S., an ordinance passed by the local governing body (city council, town meeting, board of selectmen, or whatever it is called) is required.

A few places allow the planning commission to grant these special or conditional use permits. Increasingly, a staff member may be allowed to conduct an administrative hearing, during which a member of the public also can speak, and then make a determination.

Either way, the zoning law should provide a required public hearing where you can explain your situation. You might not want to be confrontational with your neighbor, but you do need to attend this hearing and just state simply and honestly what you need. You don't need to be a great speaker, you shouldn't exaggerate, and you can keep it simple, but if there's a hearing, you need to make your wishes known.

Also if other neighbors around you have the same complaint in general, it might be helpful for you to learn how to start a petition and get that in motion. Petitions might be effective with your town council even if you don't have a zoning ordinance now.

We hope this helps you get started on fixing the problem of home church services being held by your neighbor.

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