Eleven Things Churches Should Know About Zoning

What to note before buying or constructing your next building.

It’s critical for church leaders to understand zoning laws. Yet church leaders often are unfamiliar with how zoning laws work, not to mention the legal rights that can protect them in potential zoning disputes. Below is a list of 11 things churches should know about zoning:

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

2. Check zoning laws in advance. If you plan to purchase land or expand your present facilities, check with municipal officials before you shop and go online for a zoning map and code of the town so you’ll know where churches are prohibited, allowed, or permitted conditionally.

3. Include a “zoning contingency clause” in any real estate contract to protect your congregation from a financial loss if permission to rezone the property is not obtained by authorities.

4. Get legal advice from a lawyer well-informed about zoning and real estate issues.

5. Be prepared for opposition and potentially confused or angry neighbors. Such battles are not won with lawyers, real estate agents, or money, but with prayer, fasting, discernment, gentleness, and patience.

6. Don’t underestimate the concerns of neighbors. Their worries about traffic, parking, lighting, or drainage may be legitimate.

7. Most cities are not in compliance with the law. Our study of more than 200 municipalities shows that more than half have no zone whatsoever where churches can freely locate. This is in violation of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

8. Cities cannot discriminate against churches. RLUIPA requires that “religious assemblies and institutions” must be treated the same as “non-religious assemblies and institutions” under zoning laws. This means anywhere a city permits a community center, theater, or other non-religious assembly, it must also allow a church.

9. The city may have to pay your legal bills. RLUIPA allows a church to recover legal fees from a city if the church is damaged by a violation of RLUIPA. Pointing this out to a city may help avoid litigation and motivate the city to cooperate.

10. Landmark laws can prevent important changes to a historic building that would make it more functional, such as providing more parking through a partial tear down or creating greater energy efficiency by replacing stained-glass windows. Check if a building has landmark status before making an offer and be aware that sometimes landmark laws can be overcome if they are found to violate RLUIPA or the First Amendment.

11. There’s help. Most law firms that are part of the Christian Legal Society or Alliance Defending Freedom will provide free consultation for churches concerning zoning problems. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is another excellent resource.

This article originally appeared in Leadership Journal. It was updated in November 2014 for ChurchLawAndTax.com.

John Mauck is a Chicago civil rights attorney who concentrates on zoning law with Mauck & Baker, LLC. He helped write RLUIPA.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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