Should Churches Be Able to Build Anywhere?

The current home of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka, in Wayzata.

According to a federal law passed in 2000, the answer is basically yes.  To wit, a Unitarian Universalist church in Wayzata, Minnesota has won an out-of-court settlement to build a new church in the middle of a residential neighborhood, against the objections of the City of Wayzata:

In a church-state dispute with echoes across the country, a Wayzata congregation has won its battle to build a new church in a residential neighborhood.

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka will be allowed to tear down a house and build a church and parking lot in its place, according to a federal court-mediated settlement reached last week between the church and the city of Wayzata.

To underscore the church’s victory, the settlement also requires the city and its insurer to pay the church $500,000 in damages and attorney’s fees.

The 2000 federal law under which the church sued Wayzata, which effectively allows religious projects to trump local zoning restrictions, is being tested in a growing number of communities around the country. Cases resulting in victories for congregations have cropped up in California, Maryland, Colorado and elsewhere.

In its 2010 federal suit, the Unitarian church also charged Wayzata with violating its First Amendment rights to free speech and religious worship.

My question is this: In this day and age, is it appropriate for churches to be built in residential neighborhoods? There is so much commercially-zoned property these days, it seems to me that churches should be built in those areas.

In other words, isn’t it more neighborly for a church to build in a commercial zone than in the middle of a residential neighborhood?

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  • jc

    if the question is “should the churches be ABLE to build anywhere”, my answer is yes. I think zoning laws should be kept to an absolute bare minimum.

    if the question is “should the churches fight for the right to be in neighborhoods where the majority of the neighbors don’t want them there” well, I think that is a much more difficult question that depends a lot on the circumstances.

  • Travis Greene

    I guess it depends. Don’t we want more walkable communities? I don’t think it’s neighborly to sue for your rights, but I also hate the trend of churches meeting far from where their congregants live.

  • I don’t see any problem with it. Being able to walk to the building where you gather with others to worship is something worth embracing.

  • Sean Gladding

    This has been a sore point in my home town in England, and from our time in Houston, where in both cases churches were built in residential neighbourhoods where people used to enjoy the quiet of Sunday mornings, which was wrecked with several hundred cars driving in for morning services, and cars lining the streets because there was no parking. However, I appreciate the tension travis highlights. which begs the question of “church buildings”…

  • Bizzy Bender

    A church I work for was given 75 acres of land to build a church on. It was a horse farm but the existing neighbors are fighting this tooth and nail. If this law is still on the books the church should be good to go but it still seems to have a battle on its hands!

  • Frank

    Isn’t the church for people? Yes of course so the church should be where the people are.

    When will all the whining stop?

  • Dan Hauge

    I can totally see why churches would want to build in neighborhoods, given the recent emphasis on local community, walkable neighborhoods, and churches being invested in local neighborhood communities. But I can also see how neighborhoods wouldn’t want a new church popping up, with all of the attendant noise and parking issues on a Sunday morning. So, while I support the desires of churches to be more neighborhood based, and their right to meet in neighborhoods, maybe the issue is more the scale of what church meetings look like. If you want to be more locally rooted maybe you don’t need the big church building with all the trappings.

    • jim davis

      Churches in residential hoods yes, parking lots NO!
      parking lots could be in other places and folks bussed from lot to the door. Alot of colleges in college towns are doing to do this.

  • Steve DeFields-Gambrel

    It’s not just about residential neighborhoods, people don’t want churches anywhere. As I was told the story, the town council in Livermore, CA was entertaining a zoning request for a church in a commercially zoned area near downtown.The city council soundly rejected the church, one councilman saying with great sincerity, “Why in the world would we want a church in the middle town?” Wow. Such a question only arises in a post-Christian, and Christian-hostile culture. Remember, churches don’t pay property taxes.

  • Jay

    Build a church? I think we should be past this point in our evolution. But honestly, I don’t think it is the best to build a large auditorium that will regularly cause a lot of traffic and parking problems in a residential area. If I want to have a few friends over to my house for a “party” that should not be a problem, but if it gets a lot bigger than this, perhaps they should find a more appropriate zone

  • There are so many factors at play here, such as the neighbourhood in question or the nature & size of the church in question. We can’t forget that being able to drive to church is a privilege that not everyone enjoys.

  • Marshall

    is it appropriate for churches to be built in residential neighborhoods?

    I’m totally in favor of mixed neighborhoods, but that’s a different question. Churches should be built according to the secular building codes; religious status should not be made an issue. I think it’s kind of ironic that it’s the U-U’s (generally considered by the New Atheists to be a “moderate” read ‘nearly acceptable’ religion) who are pushing Clergy Privilege here. Would a non-profit dance company be allowed to build a rehearsal/performance facility there?
    I guess this makes me out a Two Kingdoms guy.

    In other words, isn’t it more neighborly…

    You would think there were better ways to get off to a good start.

  • it was probably an affordability issue for this church. where i am located, 5 to 10 acres of residential property would be 1/4 the price of 5 to 10 acres of commercial property.

    in most areas, buildings and space can be repurposed, i think.