Key point 5-02.01. Local zoning laws generally allow "churches" in residential areas. The courts have struggled with the application of this term to various activities and organizations other than traditional congregations meeting in a building for regular worship services.
Many other courts have been asked to decide whether various uses of church-owned property constitute a church under municipal zoning laws. The following uses have been found to be "churches":
- use of a home across the street from a church for women's fellowship meetings and religious education classes; Twin-City Bible Church v. Zoning Board of Appeals, 365 N.E.2d 1381 (Ill. 1977).
- a single-family residence used by the United Presbyterian Church as a religious coffeehouse for university students; Synod of Chesapeake, Inc. v. Newark, 254 A.2d 611 (Del. 1969).
- a priest's home, convent, and parochial school; Board of Zoning Appeals v. Wheaton, 76 N.E.2d 597 (Ind. 1948).
- a 24-acre tract of land containing a large mansion that was used as a synagogue and a meeting place for the congregation's social groups and youth activities; Community Synagogue v. Bates, 154 N.Y.S.2d 15 (1956).
- a kindergarten, play area, and parochial school; Diocese of Rochester v. Planning Board, 154 N.Y.S.2d 849 (1956).
- a 37-acre estate used by an Episcopal church as a religious retreat and center for religious instruction; Diocese of Central New York v. Schwarzer, 199 N.Y.S.2d 939 (1960), affd, 217 N.Y.S.2d 567 (1961).
- a church-owned day care center; Noahs Ark Christian Child Care Center v. Zoning Hearing Board, 831 A.2d 756 (Pa. Common. 2003).
- a church-owned facility housing pregnant teenagers and including extensive spiritual counsel and enrichment; Solid Rock Ministries v. Board of Zoning Appeals, 740 N.E.2d 320 (Ohio. App. 2000).
- a religiously affiliated student center at a state university; Diocese v. Zoning Hearing Board, 899 A.2d 399 (Pa. Common. 2006).
- a monastery that contained 42 bedrooms, conference rooms, library, and dining hall; Committee to Protect Overlook, Inc. v. Town Zoning Board, 806 N.Y.S.2d 748 (N.Y. App. 2005).
- a private school operated by a Baptist church. City of Concord v. New Testament Baptist Church, 382 A.2d 377 (N.H. 1978). Accord Alpine Christian Fellowship v. Pitkin County, 870 F. Supp. 991 (D. Colo. 1994).
Other courts have concluded that certain uses of property do not constitute a church in the context of zoning laws. To illustrate, one court has held that an area restricted to residential and church uses could not accommodate temporary, open-air camp meetings. Portage Township v. Full Salvation Union, 29 N.W.2d 297 (Mich. 1947). The court observed that not every place in which religious services are conducted is a church. It inferred that a church at the least must consist of "a building set apart for public worship," and thus could not include camp meetings. Another court held that a dwelling of 16 bedrooms and 12 bathrooms occupied by 25 people comprising four different families, all members of the American Orthodox Catholic Church, was not a church or parish house even though religious instruction was given daily for one hour to the children and three times a week to the adults. People v. Kalayjian, 352 N.Y.S.2d 115 (1973). See also Heard v. Dallas, 456 S.W.2d 440 (Tex. 1970) (child care center operated in ministers residence held not to be a church). The court reasoned that "the principal use of the building … is that of a dwelling for residential purposes" and that "the incidental religious instruction provided to the families does not change this fact."
Other courts have held that the following activities were not churches under municipal zoning laws:
- a 28-acre tract used by a Jewish foundation for a conference center, leadership training center, and children's retreat; State ex rel. BNai Brith Foundation v. Walworth County, 208 N.W.2d 113 (Wis. 1973).
- a private school operated by a local Baptist church; Abram v. City of Fayetteville, 661 S.W.2d 371 (Ark. 1984).
- a religious school not operated or controlled by a church; Chaminade College v. City of Creve Coeur, 956 S.W.2d 440 (Mo. App. 1997).
- camp meetings; Portage Township v. Full Salvation Union, 29 N.W.2d 297 (Mich. 1947).
- a parish house used for Sunday school, choir practice, and church committee meetings; Newark Athletic Club v. Board of Adjustment, 144 A. 167 (N.Y. 1928).
- a religious retreat house; Independent Church of the Realization of the Word of God, Inc. v. Board of Zoning Appeals, 437 N.Y.S.2d 443 (1981).
- a dwelling of sixteen bedrooms and twelve bathrooms occupied by twenty-five persons comprising four different families, all members of the American Orthodox Catholic church; People v. Kalayjian, 352 N.Y.S.2d 115 (1973).
- a child-care center operated in a minister's residence; Heard v. Dallas, 456 S.W.2d 440 (Tex. 1970).
- a single-family residence used for organized religious services; Grosz v. City of Miami Beach, 721 F.2d 729 (5th Cir. 1983); State v. Cameron, 460 A.2d 191 (N.J. App. 1983).
- a church-owned building used primarily for administration that contained a small sanctuary comprising six percent of the building; North Pacific Conference v. Adventists v. Clark County, 74 P.3d 140 (Wash. App. 2003).
- a college. Fountain Gate Ministries, Inc. v. City of Plano, 654 S.W.2d 841 (Tex. App. 1983).
Similarly, when a farmers' organization purchased a church building for meetings promoting agriculture and "higher ideals of manhood, womanhood, and citizenship," a court concluded that the building no longer could be considered a church. In re Upper St. Clair Township Grange No. 2032, 152 A.2d 768 (Pa. 1959). "A church," observed the court, "[is] a place or edifice consecrated to religious worship, where people join together in some form of public worship."
• A New York court ruled that a city zoning board acted improperly in denying a homeowner's application to use his home as a church. The court noted that "the inclusion of churches among uses permitted in the [residential] zoning district is tantamount to a legislative determination that the use is in harmony with the general zoning plan and will not be detrimental to the surrounding area. It is presumed that a religious use will have a beneficial effect in a residential area." However, this presumption may be "rebutted with evidence of a significant impact on traffic congestion, property values, municipal services and the like." The zoning board's refusal to allow the homeowner to use his home as a church was improper since it was "based on conclusory findings and not upon substantial evidence of significant adverse effects." Neddermeyer v. Ontario Planning Board, 548 N.Y.S.2d 951 (1989).
• The Arkansas Supreme Court concluded that the word "church" in a state law prohibiting the sale of liquor within 200 yards of a church "means the place where a body of people or worshipers associate together for religious purposes." This definition included a congregation of forty members, thirteen of whom were active that met for religious services every Sunday morning. Arkansas A.B.C. v. Person, 832 S.W.2d 249 (Ark. 1992).
• The use of a two-story residence and smaller buildings on the premises qualified as a church within the meaning of a zoning ordinance, when the use of the buildings included daily religious ceremonies, prayers, lectures, and a public feast held each Sunday. Marsland v. International Society for Krishna Consciousness, 66 Haw. 119, 657 P.2d 1035 (1983).
• 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, noting that it "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. … [W]e believe the plain and ordinary meaning of 'church' … to be 'a building set apart for public worship.'" Hayes v. Fowler, 473 S.E.2d 442 (N.C. App. 1996).
• A Texas court ruled that even though an Episcopal vicar conducted religious worship and training in his rectory, this did not change what was essentially a day nursery into a "church" exempt from zoning regulations. Heard v. City of Dallas, 456 S.W.2d 440 (Tex. App. 1970).