What Churches Need to Know About Zoning Laws

by John Mauck

Zoning laws can prevent your congregation from using (whether by lease or purchase) land or buildings in many areas. They can even prevent you from expanding your current facility.

A "zoning contingency clause" in a contract can protect your congregation from big trouble. In a contract to purchase real estate, such a clause can enable the church to withdraw from the contract with no penalty or a limited penalty if permission from zoning authorities cannot be obtained.

Zoning should be checked before you shop. If your congregation is looking to move its main location, or to open an ancillary use of any sort, such as an education building or social service facility, check first with municipal officials or a knowledgeable realtor as to permitted locations.

Legal advice is essential. "Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed" (Prov. 15:22). The pitfalls from zoning are many. A well-informed lawyer with expertise in zoning or significant real estate experience can help avoid many disasters.

Zoning problems can result from spiritual warfare. Why are the neighbors organizing to keep your group from locating in the area? Paul explains in Ephesians 5:12 that "our struggle is… against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." If your church is actively building the Kingdom of God, be prepared for opposition. Such warfare is not won with lawyers, realtors, or money but requires prayer, fasting, discernment, prophecy, gentleness, patience, and most every other spiritual gift or fruit.

Not all zoning problems are a result of spiritual warfare, however. Many times we can over-spiritualize our battles, demonize our opponents, and lose the war because we misperceive the source of opposition. Neighborhood concerns about parking, lighting, or drainage can be real. Wise men listen carefully to criticism and peacemakers seek accommodation.

Every municipality must have a zone where churches are allowed without "special use" or "conditional use" permits. Most do not. I believe that the Constitution requires every municipality to have at least one zone where churches are freely permitted without having to go through any type of zoning board or city council hearing or approval process. My study of over 200 municipalities shows that slightly more than half have no zone whatsoever where churches can freely locate. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) requires every municipality to provide at least one zone where churches are freely permitted.

Wherever people assemble freely, churches must be freely allowed. RLUIPA also requires that "religious assemblies and institutions" must be allowed, under zoning laws, on terms at least equal to "non-religious assemblies and institutions." Although the act does not define "assembly" use, most commentators believe it includes community centers, theaters, funeral homes, clubs, and lodges. It could include restaurants. Thus you and your attorney should review any zoning code to see where it allows non-religious as well as religious assembly uses.

RLUIPA allows a church to recover legal fees from a city if the church is damaged by a violation of RLUIPA. This important provision can help you stay out of litigation if it is respectfully, but firmly pointed out to municipal officials. Paul said, as far as it depends on us, we should make every effort to live at peace with all men (Rom. 12:18). However, when it comes to spreading the gospel, he was insistent that Roman officials acknowledge the law even when they had broken it in the past (Acts 16:37).

There's help. The Christian Legal Society, most denominations, and Christian legal foundations all provide help or referrals to those who can advise concerning zoning problems. Our firm and most Christian law firms will provide a free consultation concerning zoning problems.

John Mauck is a Chicago civil rights attorney whose practice concentrates on zoning law. He helped write The Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act and is author of Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts As a Defense of Christianity, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000.