• 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.
* A Missouri court ruled that a city did not violate the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom in refusing to grant a church’s request for a permit to construct a sign on its property. A church applied for a sign permit to construct a monument sign near the entrance of its property. A city engineer denied the permit request for the following reasons: (1) the proposed sign exceeded the maximum allowable height of 10 feet; (2) the proposed sign exceeded the maximum sign face area; and (3) the proposed sign included a changeable letter area in excess of that allowed under code, and included moving letters or characters, which the sign code strictly prohibited. A zoning board affirmed the denial of the sign permit, and the church appealed to the courts, claiming that the city’s sign regulations were an “unconstitutional infringement on the church’s right to freely exercise its religious mission.” A state appeals court ruled that “municipalities, in the exercise of their police powers, may regulate churches.” It quoted with approval from an earlier New York case in which a court concluded that applying a city’s sign ordinance to a church did not violate the first amendment. Lakeshore Assembly of God Church v. Village Board, 508 N.Y.S.2d 819 (N.Y. App. 1986). The New York court held that “it is wholly appropriate to impose limitations on a church property and its accessory uses when reasonably related to the general welfare of the community, including the community’s interest in preserving its appearance.” The New York court noted that because the restrictions imposed on the construction of the church’s sign were not arbitrary and capricious, and because the city sought to balance the church’s request with aesthetic and safety concerns, the city did not act wrongly in regulating the church’s sign request. The Missouri court reached the same conclusion: “A mere requirement that a church obtain a special use permit before building … does not infringe on the free exercise of religion.” St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church v. City of Ellisville, 122 S.W.3d 635 (Mo. App. 2003).
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