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July 18, 2006

Zoning Laws And Religious Freedom

by Doug Mataconis

Last week, I wrote about a Fairfax County, Virginia zoning ordinance that was forcing a family to accept trees that they didn’t want on their property, today’s Washington Post, though, has an article showing how zoning and land use laws can interfere with more than just property rights.

McLean Bible Church, a Tysons Corner megachurch, has sued Fairfax County so it can continue to offer religion classes that officials say violate zoning rules.

In a 14-page suit filed July 3 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, the 10,000-member church says the classes are a regular part of church life, which is protected under the freedom of religion.

Fairfax officials say the church can’t host the classes — which can help students get a master’s degree in theology or divinity at Lanham-based Capital Bible Seminary — without county permission to operate as a college.

(…)

The dispute over the classes began in 2004, when Fairfax officials found that the church violated zoning rules by holding the classes. The church says the classes fall under a provision that allows use of the campus for “groups or activities which are sponsored by the church and consistent with its ministry objectives.”

But county officials said the church needs permission to run a college. According to a March 2005 county report, zoning staff noted that Capital Bible Seminary had set up an office and library at the church and that the classes were “designed as part of a degree program which may lead to a graduate theological degree.”

At that point, the county report said, 40 of 130 students attending the classes were “associated with the church.”

McLean Bible appealed the ruling after limiting Capital Bible Seminary’s presence by doing away with the seminary’s office and library. According to the lawsuit, the church also offered to ensure that students would not be able to complete a degree solely by taking classes at the church. Fairfax denied the appeals.

Once again, though, the question is this: what right does the County of Fairfax have to tell McLean Bible Church what it can do on its property ? The question is even more important here, because we aren’t just talking about property right; for many religious denominations, education and evangelism are a part of their religious mission. McLean Bible Church appears to be one of those denominations.

Effectively, by saying that the Church cannot operate these classes on its property, Fairfax County is restricting the Church’s ability to practice its religious beliefs.

There is a reason, of course, that the County is doing this:

McLean Bible Church, which sits on a 43-acre campus on Route 7, has long had a tense relationship with some nearby residents, who have complained that the complex — which includes a bookstore, a 2,400-seat auditorium and a cafeteria — is too large for the suburban neighborhood. Neighbors have said the church brings too much traffic to the area’s clogged roads.

Last year, the McLean Citizens Association approved a resolution urging the county to uphold its decision to bar the classes.

“We’re concerned about the potential for unlimited and uncontrolled growth of the school project,” said Jim Robertson, an association member. “We don’t object to a school. All we asked is that they limit the number of students and the times of the classes. The bottom line is traffic.”

In the lawsuit, the church notes the “presence of vocal opposition to the church” and alleges that the zoning decision “appears to be based more upon political pressure than legal principal.”

Given the circumstances, and the degree to which the County appears to be micro-managing Church affairs in this decision, I think there’s good reason to believe that this is true.

Related Post:

Government Regulation And The Housing Market
Zoning Laws And Property Rights

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2 Comments

  1. They concede that the county has a right to control zoning in this manner, and try to claim an “exemption” because they’re a church.

    Conceding the county’s right is the first problem. I posted yesterday at The Unrepentant Individual about the “Poker Players Alliance”. They’re fighting Congress’ recent battle to ban internet poker.

    I’m all for fighting Congress. But the PPA is suggesting that Poker shouldn’t be banned because it’s a “skill game” (which it is, of course), rather than because we are adults and deserve freedom. As if it’s just fine that Congress can ban online blackjack, but somehow poker is more special and should be allowed.

    I don’t want FairFax county to claim that this church can’t offer these classes. But the reason for that is that it is the Church’s property, not the county’s. Not that they should get some freedom of religion exemption.

    Comment by Brad Warbiany — July 18, 2006 @ 10:58 am
  2. Brad,

    From the philosophical standpoint, I agree that the Church makes a mistake when it concedes the County’s right to even create the zoning regulation in question.

    From a legal standpoint, though, knowing Virginia law and more importantly the judges in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia where this case was filed, this argument would be a loser.

    Comment by Doug Mataconis — July 18, 2006 @ 11:03 am

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