The legal issues involved hosting Church at a private home
In certain parts of the country, like California, large religious assemblies are still prohibited. As a result, many religious groups are encouraging their members to continue meeting in smaller numbers in their homes. All across the country, people are hosting small prayer gatherings, worship services, Bible studies, and conducting other religious activities in their homes. For many faith groups this is nothing new. Gathering in one another’s homes for religious purposes—be it for prayer, fellowship, study, or worship—is actually an ancient practice. But while states may support and even encourage these home gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, religious groups may still run into opposition from neighbors and local officials. This is why every religious group in America needs to be aware of these three things:
- ZONING CODES. Almost all municipalities these days have zoning codes. These codes generally restrict how properties within the jurisdiction can be used. They typically create separate zones for residential uses, commercial uses, and industrial uses. They also often restrict where religious assemblies may locate. There have been numerous cases over the years in which local officials have enforced zoning code provisions against people meeting for religious purposes in their own homes. Rather than allow people to gather together in their homes as they would otherwise do to watch Sunday football games together or celebrate special occasions like a birthday, some municipalities have cracked down on religious gatherings arguing that they constitute a “church” or an impermissible “religious assembly” for which the home is not zoned. These enforcement actions have even led to litigation in both state and federal court.
- PARKING RESTRICTIONS. In addition to zoning restrictions which restrict where a particular land use may occur, most municipalities also have parking codes which regulate the number of off-street parking spaces a particular use must have. One of the first things that may draw the ire of neighbors is a larger than normal number of cars parked on the street. And when this begins to occur on a regular basis, it may lead to a neighbor raising the issue with local officials. The problem then turns into a conflict which then escalates even further when local officials decide to treat the home gathering as a “church” or “religious assembly.” Such a classification may not only create a zoning problem but may also lead to a parking code violation. It is not uncommon for parking codes to place onerous off-street parking restrictions on “religious assemblies.” These restrictions are often based on the number of seats provided in the place of assembly. So, for example, a parking code may require one off-street parking space for every four seats. Religious groups should be aware that parking problems may lead to problems with neighbors and enforcement actions by local officials.
- RLUIPA. RLUIPA is the acronym for the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act. It is a federal law that Congress enacted in 2000 to provide heightened protection for religious assemblies and institutions in the land use context. The law actually provides greater protection for religious assemblies in the land use context than is available under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. Even though this federal law has now been around for twenty years, many religious groups and even some municipalities have never heard of it. As a result, there are many religious groups that struggle to deal with municipal efforts to restrict or prohibit their gatherings through the enforcement of zoning and parking codes. On the other hand, we have helped many religious groups and municipalities resolve their conflicts by bringing RLUIPA to bear on the situation. Sometimes these codes are discriminatory on their face, and sometimes they are enforced in a discriminatory fashion. Either way, religious groups need to know what rights they have under federal law that may trump local land use regulations. RLUIPA’s various provisions are designed to protect religious assemblies and institutions of all sizes from discrimination in the land use context. Over the years, we have used RLUIPA—both in and out of court—to help numerous religious groups overcome municipal opposition to their home gatherings.
Free Church Land Use and Zoning Guide
If your religious group wants to better under its rights under RLUIPA or needs help overcoming zoning and parking restrictions, please download our free guide and give us a call.