• Key point 7-06.2. Some courts permit local zoning commissions to restrict the location of churches in residential areas.
• Key point 7-06.3. Local zoning commissions may violate a church’s first amendment right to the free exercise of religion by imposing unreasonable restrictions on the church’s ability to purchase and develop land for church use. Churches whose constitutional rights are violated in this manner may be able to sue for money damages under federal law.
A Missouri court ruled that a church’s constitutional rights were not violated by a city ordinance requiring it to obtain a special permit before building a multi-purpose building on its property. A church filed an application with the city for a special use permit to expand its facilities. The church wanted to add a multi-purpose building to be attached to the existing sanctuary in order to serve the needs of a growing congregation. The church’s specific goal was to accommodate the growth in Sunday school, the preschool summer Bible program, adult bible study, and various youth group activities, as well as to maintain a unified structure so Church members would not have to exit one building to enter another. The city zoning commission considered the application and recommended approval of the special use permit if the church moved the construction to provide for a 50-foot side yard setback instead of the proposed 25-foot side yard setback. If the church refused to comply with this request, however, the commission recommended the denial of the application. At a hearing before the city council, neighbors adjacent to the church property voiced their objections to the proposed expansion, particularly the location of the multi-purpose building which they claimed would have a negative impact on the view from their houses. The city council denied the church’s application for a special use permit. This decision was later reversed by a trial court.
The church sued the city for money damages, claiming that its decision was arbitrary and violated the church’s rights under the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. A trial court ruled in favor of the city, and the church appealed. The church claimed that the city’s requirement that it apply for a special use permit, and the city’s denial of the church’s application, violated the first amendment. The court disagreed. It noted that “numerous decisions have acknowledged that municipalities, in the exercise of their police powers, may regulate churches” in order to promote the “health, safety, morals, or the general welfare of the community.” The court concluded that “it is clear from these cases that the fact that a municipality exercises some control over the conduct of churches is not, per se, violative of a church’s right to the free exercise of religion; but rather a determination of whether such regulation is tantamount to an infringement of the free exercise of religion depends on the facts and circumstances of each case. Thus, city’s mere requirement that the church apply for a special use permit did not infringe on the free exercise of religion.”
Further, the court pointed out that the church voluntarily applied for a special use permit instead of challenging the constitutionality of the zoning ordinance. Having pursued the permit procedure on its own, “the church cannot now claim a violation of its constitutional rights for pursuing that very procedure.” Village Lutheran Church v. City of Ladue, 997 S.W.2d 506 (Mo. App. 1999).
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