Counseling Center’s Request for Building Permit Denied

The services offered would not have been for “religious purposes” as required by zoning law.

Church Law and Tax 1991-01-01 Recent Developments


A Massachusetts appeals court upheld a city’s denial of a pastoral counseling center’s application for a building permit to convert space in a church building into a counseling center. A Congregational church opened a pastoral counseling center in 1976. To extend its reach beyond the immediate congregation to the broader community, the center relocated to the Andover-Newton Theological School and became an ecumenical practice. To emphasize the continuity between pastoral counseling and church activity, the center later decided to relocate in a local church. It made arrangements with a Baptist church to rent a portion of its facilities for a ten-year term. The counseling center planned to use 6 pastoral counselors who would see about 120 clients per week. Counseling sessions would last about fifty minutes, for which a fee of $35 to $50 would be charged. The counselors were prepared to treat a variety of problems, including depression, grief, marital difficulties, substance abuse, job stress, and loneliness. The counseling center is open to the general public, and its clientele is not limited to Baptists, Christians, or even believers in God. Further, the counselors do not proselytize. The city denied the center’s application for a permit to remodel a portion of the church into a counseling center, since this activity would not be for “religious purposes” as required by the zoning law. The court noted that “the services offered by the center, and its method of delivering them are not significantly different from what a neutral observer coming upon the scene would size up as a mental health center applying standard psychological and psychiatric techniques.” The court acknowledged that “religious activity, to be sure, may involve more than prayer and worship.” However, on the other hand, “some theological, inspirational or spiritual content does not automatically imbue an activity with a religious purpose.” The court emphasized that the center would be operated by a tenant rather than by the church itself, and “is not designed primarily for parishioners of that church. Specific religious doctrine is subordinated, and the doctrinal faith of the counselors is to play no role in the counseling sessions. The readiness to give psychological counseling to nonbelievers illustrates that, depending on the reaction of the particular client, religion may be absent from certain counseling sessions altogether.” Under these circumstances, the court agreed with the city’s conclusion that the center would not be operated for a “religious purpose” as required by law. The court did acknowledge that a pastoral counseling center located in a church building and operated by the church primarily for its own members would be a religious purpose. Such was not the case here. Needham Pastoral Counseling Center, Inc. v. Board of Appeals, 557 N.E.2d 43 (Mass. App. 1990).

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