Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Churches given no room to grow

Religious Liberty | Zoning rules create barriers to religious freedom
by Steve West
Posted 8/31/20, 07:29 pm

When Illinois pastor Keinon Washington stands to preach, he sees growth potential. “We’re kingdom builders,” he said. “We believe in the Scripture that says to go and compel them to come, that His house may be filled” (Luke 14:23).

But for now, Washington’s seven-member The Word Seed Church meets in his modest home. Restrictive zoning provisions in the Chicago suburb of Homewood have kept the congregation from expanding into a building. The church filed a lawsuit in federal court on Aug. 24 arguing Homewood’s zoning ordinance infringes on its religious freedom.

The complaint says the village of Homewood violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The 2000 federal law requires local governments to treat religious institutions the same as secular ones. While movie theaters, restaurants, taverns, and most other businesses can open in one or more of Homewood’s zoning districts, churches are required to apply for a special use permit.

The expensive and time-consuming process often requires appraisals, traffic studies, surveys, and other paperwork. The additional cost hampers churches that have the money to purchase a property—like The Word Seed—but can’t afford the permit. Even if they could get the OK, most sellers do not want to take a property off the market for months while a church submits its application, said Chicago attorney John Mauck, who represents The Word Seed.

“The church’s ability to fully and effectively conduct religious exercise has been substantially hampered by not having a church property,” the lawsuit says.

Mauck said the coronavirus pandemic makes this problem more urgent because more Christians are participating in house churches: “If you could look down with X-ray eyes across the country, you would see in all of the big cities and suburbs little dots of light—congregations of five, 10, or 15 people, many of whom have the same desire to serve the Lord Jesus but are limited by the zoning ordinance.”

The Summit Church, a large congregation headed by Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear in Durham, N.C., suspended in-person services after the pandemic struck.

“Instead of The Summit Church being 12,000 people meeting in 12 different locations on the weekend, now we are going to be about 15,000 people meeting in about 2,400 locations,” he said during a July 21 virtual meeting with members. Post-pandemic, some of those house churches might face zoning challenges if they decide to stay independent and grow.

Communities shut out places of worship and religious schools for numerous reasons. The Word Seed had a building in Markham, Ill., from about 2012 to 2017, when the city forced it to sell so it could use the land for business development. The church has met in its pastor’s home since then.

In 2019, Tree of Life Christian Schools lost its battle to open a new campus in Upper Arlington, Ohio. The town said it wanted to use the property for commercial activity that would generate more tax revenue. Orthodox Jews have sued local authorities in Jackson Township, N.J., and Airmont, N.Y., for discriminating against them with ordinances that keep them from expanding their schools.

The Word Seed, an African American church, does not accuse the village of Homewood of racial bias in its special use permit process. But Mauck said restrictive ordinances often have a harsher effect on smaller, less well-funded churches that serve minority populations.

Washington, who became pastor of the 20-year-old church in 2018, did not go looking for a battle. “It touched me that if we are going through this, then there must be other churches going through the same thing,” he said. “So I just felt led to fight.”


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Steve West

Steve is an attorney and freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. Follow him on Twitter @slntplanet or at his blog.

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