Watch Your Step

Business activity in your church can impact employment policies and zoning.

Launching a business at a church may provide a needed bridge to connect with the surrounding community, providing an evangelistic opportunity. But launching a business likely poses less obvious implications for a church. Below is a compilation of key points and examples from several sources that a church should keep in mind as it anticipates the launch of a business. Use this information to further investigate local, state, and federal laws and to prepare accordingly.

Zoning Laws

Many courts have been asked to decide whether a particular use of property comes within the definition of a church under municipal zoning laws. The following activities and uses have been held to come within that definition:

  • Use of a home across the street from a church for women’s fellowship meetings and religious education classes.
  • A single-family residence used by the United Presbyterian Church as a religious coffeehouse for university students.
  • A priest’s home, convent, and parochial school.
  • A kindergarten, play area, and parochial school.
  • A private school operated by a Baptist church.

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. 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.

Other courts have held that the following activities were not churches for purposes of zoning laws:

  • A private school operated by a local Baptist church.
  • A religious school not operated or controlled by a church.
  • A child-care center operated in a minister’s residence.

As an example, a Connecticut court ruled that a convent and chapel constituted a “church” for purposes of zoning law despite the operation of a bookstore and audiovisual center on the premises. The court concluded that the convent and chapel, by themselves, clearly satisfied the definition of a church. The fact that a bookstore and audiovisual center were also operated on the premises did not affect this conclusion, since the books and materials were religious and educational in nature and were sold to support the order’s missionary and instructional purposes.

The court rejected the claim that the convent and chapel should not be allowed in a residential neighborhood since they “would be a detriment to the neighborhood by increasing traffic congestion.” The court observed that the intersection where the order planned to construct the convent and chapel “carried a daily traffic volume of over 18,000 cars,” and that the construction of the convent and chapel “would draw approximately twenty [additional] cars per day.” This case will be of interest to the many churches that operate bookstores on their premises.

Accessory Uses

Many zoning laws permit uses that are “accessory” to a permitted use. One court upheld a church’s right to construct a recreational complex on property adjacent to its sanctuary. Other courts have found that the following uses were accessory to a permitted church use and therefore were appropriate in a residential district:

  • A church activities building and playground.
  • A parking lot.
  • A school.
  • A center for performing arts.

Not every use of church property, however, will be so approved. The following uses of church property have been disallowed on the ground that they were not accessory to permitted church use:

  • Parking of a church bus on church property.
  • A 301-foot radio transmission tower that was more than 10 times higher than neighboring residences.
  • A school.

As an example, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that a church-run child care center is a permissible activity on church property zoned exclusively for church or residential purposes. The court acknowledged that the zoning ordinance did not allow child care facilities in the neighborhood in which the church was located, but it concluded that such an activity was a permissible “accessory” use.

Employees and Volunteers

Churches and church leaders can face legal liability for the negligent selection of ministers, church employees, and volunteer workers. For the purposes of launching a business at a church, it’s important to understand what impact the business will have on the church, in terms of the addition of employees and the church’s involvement in interstate commerce, as well as the selection of volunteers.

Churches that launch businesses should use application and interview processes for employees and volunteers, as well as contact references and perform background checks, especially in situations where individuals contact children. Churches also should try to involve more than one person in hiring decisions, even if the startup only has one person overseeing its initial development. The use of written job descriptions and introductory periods also can help employees, volunteers, and the business clearly understand roles and expectations.

Employment Laws

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars certain employers from discriminating in employment decisions on the basis of any of the following factors:

  • Race
  • Color
  • National origin
  • Sex
  • Pregnancy
  • Religion

Only those employers that are engaged in an activity “affecting interstate commerce” and having at least 15 employees are subject to this law. Churches with 15 or more employees are covered only if they are engaged in an activity affecting interstate commerce. In general, whether or not a church meets this requirement will depend upon the frequency and nature of its interstate transactions:

For instance, a church that sells several tapes of its weekly services to persons living in other states almost certainly is engaged in interstate commerce. But a church that doesn’t sell any products across state lines, isn’t engaged in any commercial or broadcasting activities, and makes few if any out-of-state purchases probably is not engaged in interstate commerce.

  • Title VII only protects employees. It has no application to uncompensated volunteers.
  • While churches that are covered by Title VII are exempted from the ban on religious discrimination in their employment decisions, they are not exempted from the ban on discrimination based on race, color, national origin, or sex.

Other acts to note:

  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act: Activity “affecting interstate commerce” and at least 20 employees.
  • Americans with Disabilities Act: Activity “affecting interstate commerce” and at least 15 employees.
  • Family Medical Leave Act: Activity “affecting state commerce” and at least 50 employees.
  • Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994.
  • Immigration Reform and Control Act.
  • Fair Labor Standards Act.
  • Older Workers Benefit Protection Act of 1991.

Church leaders are advised to seek the advice of a local attorney regarding the application of state and local employment and civil rights laws to ministers and lay employees.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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