Zoning – Part 2

A Texas court ruled that a city could compel a church-operated school to close because it failed to comply with various safety provisions in a city building code.

Church Law and Tax2002-09-01


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.Building Codes

* A Texas court ruled that a city could compel a church-operated school to close because it failed to comply with various safety provisions in a city building code. A church-operated private school applied to the city for a permit to add a stairwell to its basement so that it could be used for a lunchroom. When reviewing this application, a city building official noticed that the school was not in compliance with the city building code and did not have a certificate of occupancy. The building official inspected the building to determine if it complied with the building code. She concluded that it did not because it did not meet the minimal life-safety requirements. She also concluded that the building posed a substantial danger to its students from fire and smoke because of the inadequate smoke detection system, the narrow corridors, the hollow doors, and the chipboard and wood construction. The school hired a safety expert, who asserted that the building was safe and posed no substantial danger. A school official testified that the school was not able to make all of the required changes because of the financial burden involved. He also noted that in fire drills, all students were able to exit the building in 55 seconds and pointed out that because the building complied with the code’s requirements for a church and Sunday school, it was also safe for use as a school.

The city ordered the school to cease operations until it complied with the building code. A state court affirmed this ruling. The court acknowledged that the building complied with the code as long as it was being used as a church, but concluded that “a building being used for church and Sunday school is classified differently than one being used as a school. In determining that a school must comply with stricter safety requirements, the drafters of the building code may have considered the extended amount of time a child spends at school, the use of various appliances to cook lunch, and the increased use of electrical equipment.” The court also rejected the school’s argument that the city’s order violated the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom. The court noted that the building code is a “religion-neutral” law that is presumably valid even without proof of a compelling government interest. However, even if a compelling government interest were required, the court noted that “as a matter of law, the state has a compelling interest of the highest order in protecting the health and safety of children.” The court also rejected the school’s claim that there was insufficient evidence that a substantial danger existed.

Application. This case demonstrates that attempts by churches and church-operated schools to exempt themselves from building codes will fail in most cases, at least if the codes are neutral and do not target religious institutions for stricter requirements. Christian Academy of Abilene v. City of Abilene, 62 S.W.3d 217 (Tex. App. 2001).

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