According to a FOX News report, 842 megachurches around the nation hosted more than three million people every Sunday during 2004. Far beyond the weekly sermon, members of megachurches can avail themselves of daily non-religious, but faith-based services ranging from weight loss counseling to stock investment lessons, while their kids are attending kindergarten through high school right on the megachurch "campus."
A Church too Big?
Local governments, feeling they have sound reasons to do so, have been attempting to limit the size and location of megachurches through application of zoning laws. Unlike traditional churches, the impacts of megachurches on a city's infrastructure more closely resemble those of a business with 2,000 employees or a modest-sized retail center. Traffic, noise, and sheer building massing in otherwise residential settings are just a few of the most often mentioned negative impacts of megachurches, which pay no taxes toward maintaining the city services they impact.
To city planners, megachurches walk and talk less like churches than they do like businesses, which zoning laws have been controlling for decades. However, even city planners must concede that the Constitution's First Amendment protection of religious freedom does not specify, "except for really big churches."
There's an Old Rugged Amendment...
Backing up the First Amendment in insulating megachurches from zoning laws is the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, the "General Rule" of which states:
No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution -- (A.) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B.) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.
The Act goes on to define "land use regulation" as:
The term 'land use regulation' means a zoning or landmarking law, or the application of such a law, that limits or restricts a claimant's use or development of land (including a structure affixed to land), if the claimant has an ownership, leasehold, easement, servitude, or other property interest in the regulated land or a contract or option to acquire such an interest.
Cities See the Light
It was in the sobering legal reality of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, that county commissioners of West Palm Beach, FL recently backed off on a proposed measure that would have added a section to their zoning ordinance limiting the size and seating capacity of new churches located in residential zones. Churches in commercial zones would not have been limited.
Pastors, congregations and their lawyers objected on grounds that the restrictions would discriminate against houses of worship and thus violate both the Constitution and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. County zoning administrators argued that the proposed restrictions, in being no different than those already applied to businesses and other large traffic generating uses, did not discriminate against churches.
After nearly a year studying the legalities involved, the zoning department staff decided to drop the proposal, but retained an unchallenged provision establishing minimum parking requirements for all churches.
It must be pointed out that the vast majority of churches want to be good neighbors by not creating any negative impacts on the communities they serve, and will work together with city officials in choosing appropriate locations for their facilities. Problems typically arise in one of two circumstances: 1.) existing churches on limited acreage experience massive growth, or 2.) vacant land owned by churches and intended for future expansion becomes surrounded by residential neighborhoods over the years.
For city planners, the megachurch represents a new and unexpected source of NIMBY (not in my backyard) battles, pitting the rights of the average citizen against the rights of a powerful and influential outside interest. In this case, however, the outside interest just happens to be the thousand-pound-gorilla of constitutional rights religion.
"It's unfortunate that churches can't abide by the same rules that anybody else has to abide by," said Susan Kennedy, president of the Jupiter Farms (Florida) Environmental Council, as quoted in a Palm Beach Post article. "You wouldn't want a Super Wal-Mart or a giant-sized church placed in a small residential community."