Church Property – Part 2

A Wisconsin court ruled that a city did not violate the constitutional rights of a church by requiring it to install a sprinkler system in its 35-year-old sanctuary.

Church Law and Tax2002-07-01

Church Property

Key point 7-08. Most cities have enacted building codes that prescribe minimum standards in the construction of buildings. The courts have ruled that these laws may be applied to churches so long as they are reasonably related to the promotion of public health and safety.

Building Codes

* A Wisconsin court ruled that a city did not violate the constitutional rights of a church by requiring it to install a sprinkler system in its 35-year-old sanctuary. A church was constructed in 1965. At that time, automatic fire sprinklers were not required by the city’s fire code. In 1993, the city granted the church’s request for a change of use in the building to include a preschool. Although a sprinkler system could have been required, the city gave the church a variance and allowed it to install smoke detectors instead. When the church wanted to start a school in 1995, the city again did not require the installation of a sprinkler system. In 1999, a school building was constructed and attached to the original building. The school building has a sprinkler system. As a condition of approval for the construction of the school, the city required the retrofitting of a sprinkler system in the original church building.

The church filed a lawsuit, claiming that installing sprinklers in the church building would violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The church noted that its sanctuary consists of exposed wooden beams, and that a sprinkler system would result in 2.5-inch water pipes going around the beams throughout the sanctuary (drilling holes to allow the pipes to pass through the beams was not possible because it would diminish their structural integrity). The church concluded,

As Lutherans, we believe that God is present with us in the Divine Service. The area of the chancel is holy ground. We bow before entering the chancel and kneel before the altar to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Because of this, the retrofitted sprinkler system, by its very presence, will be in competition with the sacred appointments in the chancel. This can also be visually disturbing to those who are worshiping. By enforcing strict compliance of [the fire code] the city is dictating how we must worship and what items we must have in our sacred space. Such an intrusion by the government, no matter the motive, is in violation of constitutional guarantees under the first amendment with respect to freedom of worship.

In response, the city insisted that sprinkler systems are justified because they are proven to protect the lives and safety of citizens, children and fire fighters. The city also referred to "a recent rash of church fires throughout the United States" and concluded that sprinkler systems are the "most effective way to prevent loss of life and property in a structure fire."

A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that the church had the burden of proving that (1) it has a sincerely held religious belief, (2) that is burdened by application of the state law at issue. Upon such proof, the burden shifts to the state to prove: (3) that the law is based on a compelling state interest, (4) which cannot be served by a less restrictive alternative. The court concluded that the church failed to meet the threshold requirement of proving that installing a sprinkler system in its sanctuary would violate a sincerely held religious belief. It observed, "A church deacon stated that the membership believes that God is present during church services and the chancel is holy ground. While expressing the opinion that the sprinkler system would be in competition with the sacred appointments inside the church, the deacon presented no evidence that basic tenets, principles or dogmas of the church prohibit the presence of secular items in the worship space." The court concluded that church failed to prove "whether there are sincerely held beliefs that proscribe secular items within the church sanctuary" and that "without evidence of the church’s basic tenets, principles or dogmas, it is impossible to establish how the application of the [fire code] would create a substantial burden on worship in the church. At best, the installation of a sprinkler system would prove distracting and aesthetically displeasing." Because the church failed to prove that it had a sincerely held religious belief that was substantially burdened by the application of the fire code, its constitutional rights under the state constitution were not violated.

Application. While the court’s analysis was based on the freedom of religion provision in the Wisconsin Constitution, a similar analysis applies under the federal Constitution. No matter how much a church believes that a public safety regulation will "desecrate" the church property, this belief alone will not be enough to stop the regulation. The church must prove that the regulation burdens a sincerely held religious belief that is expressed in the church’s doctrine. Even if a doctrinal violation is proven, the regulation will be constitutionally valid so long as it promotes a "compelling state interest." The court in this case concluded that the installation of a sprinkler system on church property met this standard. Peace Lutheran Church v. Village of Sussex, 631 N.W.2d 229 (Wisc. App. 2001).

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