Using an Apartment to Conduct Church Services

Visitor Question: Can my neighbor legally use her rented apartment to conduct church services for more than 50 people in Connecticut every Sunday?

Editors Answer: Since you asked this question on our page for zoning questions, we are assuming that this is occurring where there is a zoning law in effect.

In that case, this is probably an outrageously bad zoning violation. We have to say "probably," since it is possible that your zoning ordinance allows houses of worship "as of right" within your (and your neighbor's) particular zoning district.

"As of right" simply means that no additional level of permission is necessary from a zoning standpoint.

So unless places of worship are allowed in your zoning district, no, we would say that what your neighbor is doing is strictly illegal. Have you complained to your town (or county government, as the case may be)? If not, we think you should start there.

Some readers seem to think that because courts are rather lenient with churches, as we outlined on our church zoning page, that almost any religious use can be permitted anywhere.

That is not so.

RLUIPA (the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) protected against jurisdictions ruling out any new congregations at all anywhere in town. It also aimed to prohibit zoning discrimination against a particular faith or denomination, and required all of those to be treated equally.

But it certainly did not mean that anything like using an apartment as a congregation can occur.

Now you have to be somewhat careful also, in that your neighbor may claim that all of those people attending church services are actually invited guests. They might argue that the zoning ordinance does not set a limit on the number of guests you can invite to a party, so therefore they can invite any number of people to a church service too.

In a few courts, they might win on that basis.

But in most situations, this business of church services on a weekly basis in an apartment will be considered a zoning violation. Zoning violations are prosecuted in municipal court, and the "punishment" typically is a daily fine for each day that the violation continues.

So our best advice is to get your municipality on your side. The very things that zoning is supposed to protect against--excessive traffic, for example--and the things it is supposed to protect for all, such as what courts have called "quiet enjoyment" of your property, definitely pertain to this situation.

You can help make the enforcement process more effective by keeping a record of each date on which these church services appear to be occurring, or even noting the number of cars that arrive. Photos taken from your own property or from the public street may be helpful also.

If you have not discussed this matter personally with your neighbor, do that also if you know this neighbor and feel safe doing so.

This really is going way too far, we feel. Occasionally we have advised friends or family to try to ignore something like four or five extra cars coming into the neighborhood weekly for a small religious meeting that does not constitute a meeting that the general public would be invited to attend. We think that is within the bounds of free association and within the limits of ordinary residential use.

However, something that is an open invitation, as presumably most church services are, should not be tolerated.

Incidentally, we think this should be true whether or note the residence in question is a multi-family home (apartment) or single-family. But certainly in a rented apartment, this behavior should not be tolerated.

Your municipality should be able to treat your complaint anonymously if that is important to you. Of course you lose your cover if you start providing evidence, as we advised you to do.

One another avenue for you to explore is to contact the landlord to make sure they know this is happening. We cannot imagine the landlord would be too pleased about this, thinking that it would aggravate the other tenants and prevent him or her from renting out other apartments if the word got out.

This is especially important in that in most municipalities, if a zoning violation is alleged, it would be the landlord, not the tenant, who is summoned to municipal court, and also the landlord who would be punished. So definitely think in these terms as well. If the landlord has a decent lease, this type of behavior probably is prohibited, as is any behavior that results in a violation of a municipal ordinance, such as zoning.

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