Churches and Zoning Law

A court ruled that a law prohibiting churches from meeting in commercial zones does not violate the Constitution.

Church Law and Tax 1991-03-01 Recent Developments


A federal district court in Minnesota ruled that a city’s refusal to allow a church to operate in a commercial zone did not violate the church’s constitutional rights. A city zoning ordinance permitted churches in residential zones, but not in commercial or industrial zones. A new church congregation began meeting in a pastor’s home. As the congregation grew, it began meeting in a public school building, and then in a commercial building. Eventually, the city notified the church that use of the commercial building violated city zoning law. The church unsuccessfully sought to amend the zoning ordinance to permit churches in commercial zones, and then it sought to locate other sites for church services. The church was not able to find suitable accommodations in a residential zone, and continued to meet in the commercial building. When the city ordered the church to vacate the building, the church filed a lawsuit alleging that the city’s actions violated the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom. The court rejected the church’s position. It noted the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom is not violated unless “something is prohibited because of its religious affiliation or its display of religious belief.” This was not the case here, the court concluded, since the city had not barred churches from commercial zones because of their religious character: “The zoning ordinance neither excludes only churches from the commercial and industrial zones nor reveals an anti-religious intent.” The court also rejected the church’s claim that the city’s actions violated the constitutional guaranty of the “equal protection of the laws.” This guaranty ensures that “all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” The church pointed out that a number of other charitable organizations (including Alcoholics Anonymous and the Masonic Lodge) were permitted to operate in commercial zones, and thus the exclusion of churches was unconstitutional. The court observed that “what the church cannot deny, however, is that the church describes itself precisely as a ‘church’ while Alcoholics Anonymous and the Masonic Lodge cannot be so defined.” This ruling is clearly erroneous, and hopefully will be reversed on appeal. The court’s rejection of the church’s “equal protection” argument on the ground that Alcoholics Anonymous and the Masonic Lodge are not “churches” defies belief. Such an interpretation would virtually write this protection out of the constitution. The court’s cavalier treatment of religious liberty is equally disturbing. What would violate the constitutional guaranty of religious liberty according to this court? It gave two examples—a state law “banning the casting of statues that are to be used for worship purposes,” or “prohibiting bowing down before a golden calf.” Any further developments will be reported in future issues of this newsletter. Cornerstone Bible Church v. City of Hastings, 740 F. Supp. 654 (D. Minn. 1990).

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