Definition of “Church” for Zoning Purposes

Not all church-owned buildings qualify as a “church” under zoning law.

Church Law and Tax 1997-05-01


Key point. The definition of a “church” for purposes of zoning laws may not include a church-owned building used for social events.

A North Carolina court ruled that a church-owned house used by a church for social events was not a “church” for purposes of a local zoning law. The zoning law permitted “churches” in a city’s historic district. A church owned a house in the historic district that was used for such purposes as bridge club, social gatherings, community functions, and occasional choir practices and religious instruction. The church planned to sell the home to an individual who wanted to use the home for a “bed and breakfast” establishment. The city informed the purchaser that such a use would not be permitted. The purchaser argued that the church’s use of the home was also a “nonconforming” use that was allowed by the city and that could be continued by future owners. A court agreed that the home, as used by the church, was “nonconforming” since it was not a church. The court noted that the term “church” is not defined in the zoning law. It continued:

The expression “church” ordinarily embraces three basic and related definitions: (1) a building set apart for public worship; (2) a place of worship of any religion; and (3) the organization of Christianity or of an association of Christians worshipping together.

The city zoning commission insisted that the third definition applied in this case-a church is an organization for religious purposes. The commission claimed that the term “church” cannot be limited to a building where religious services are held, but must also include any building owned and used by a church. The court rejected this sweeping definition:

[A]doption of “an organization for religious purposes” as the ordinance definition of a church would produce the unreasonable result that every building owned by a church or “organization for religious purposes” would qualify as a “church” for purposes of the ordinance. We are required to avoid interpretations that produce absurd or illogical results … and therefore reject [the commission’s] contention that [the home] constituted a “church” merely because it was owned by [a church] ….

[W]e believe the plain and ordinary meaning of “church” … to be “a building set apart for public worship.”

Application. The word “church” appears in a variety of local, state, and federal laws. In most cases, the term is not defined. This has forced the courts to come up with a definition. Predictably, attempts by the civil courts to define an ecclesiastical term have been somewhat clumsy and inconsistent. This case is useful because the court acknowledged at least three ways that the term “church” may be defined. This approach may be useful to other religious organizations wanting to be considered a “church” for purposes of other laws. Hayes v. Fowler, 473 S.E.2d 442 (N.C. App. 1996). [Zoning Law for Churches, Zoning Law and Churches]

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