Churches in Single Family Neighborhood

by Stuart Cameron
(Wilmington, DE)

Visitor Question: If a church is approved for an existing low density single family home neighborhood, is it treated the same as every other resident of that in regards to code?

Editors Reply: We assume you are saying that a church received some type of municipal approval (whether a building permit, conditional use permit, special use permit, or other legislative or administrative approval), and that the location is in a zoning district allowing single family homes.

You also probably are saying that the existing land use pattern is single family homes.

We'll answer based on these assumptions. If you read our page on church zoning, you will see more elaborate discussion of the idea that courts are very reluctant to require churches to conform to all requirements of a zoning law.

The reason for this is the freedom of religion clauses of the Constitution.

In practice most municipalities will require churches to conform to any and all provisions of the zoning ordinance. Sometimes if the church protests, the city may give in, being mindful of the frequent interpretation of the courts.

If you poke around on our site enough, you would see that zoning regulates not only what land uses are legal, but also the required setbacks of buildings from a property line, the maximum height of buildings, often the minimum number of parking spaces that may be required and the number and sizes of signs, and the like.

You could mean something else when you say "code," though. You could mean a building code, or specialized code governing plumbing, energy, electrical, and such.

There again it may be possible for a church to argue successfully that it shouldn't be required to conform to every type of building code that a municipality has enacted, but there is considerably less precedent for a church exception to these safety-related codes than is the case in zoning.

If you object to the way your municipality is treating the church, you should talk immediately with the staff member taking the action and also your elected officials, such as a mayor and city councilperson.

Also it would be good to talk with the church directly, as most churches are anxious to get along with neighbors when they move into a community.

You might have some success with person-to-person diplomacy with your city government and with the church.

This was a long answer to your question, but you should be aware that the answer isn't completely straightforward. To be brief, the answer is yes, churches have to comply with the same codes as the rest of the zoning district. But if the church wants to press for advantageous treatment, some jurisdictions will have judicial precedents for allowing churches to bow out of certain requirements, basing this leniency on freedom of worship.

Comments for Churches in Single Family Neighborhood

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Utilizing A Church Building in Single Family Neighborhood for Entrepreneurial Education
by: Anonymous


We would like to create a faith and work ministry that allows neighboring free lance workers/entrepreneurs/and tele commuters to utilize our church along side pastoral staff. We would have a set curriculum to teach how faith can become more relevant in your work and would have the space available Monday through Saturday 8 am to 7 pm. There is an abundance of onsite parking and the church sits on a semi-busy 4 lane street. I'm curious how the planning department will view this as a "church related function?" I've been told if we accept rent it would invoke a commercial use but if we accept a programmatic fee or suggested donation, it would not.

Editors Respond: We cannot predict exactly what your planning department will say, of course, and we do not have access to your zoning ordinance. But our educated guess is that what you have been told is correct: that if you rent out space, you will have created a commercial venture that must comply with zoning for commercial purposes, but if it is a church program, it will be allowed. Of course this program would be subject to any restrictions or conditions that your town has placed on your use as a church already.

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