Churches and municipalities are clashing over land use issues, particularly due to the growth of megachurches, causing both local governments and congregations to look beyond the usual route of enforcing free exercise of religion legislation.
World magazine (June 9) reports that clashes between politicians and churches over land use and resulting loss of tax revenue are becoming common. Federal legislation, such as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), gives churches the leverage to sue cities that attempt to block them from purchasing huge parcels of land for their use.
Thus, as the number of megachurches grow, so too does the number of lawsuits. But this law has also pushed cities to “automatically view large churches as pushy neighbors and unstoppable drains on public resources,” writes Mark Bergin. In some places, local governments have made attempts at rolling back tax exemption or even approaching congregations and other voluntary organizations asking for voluntary donations.
But new approaches to this issue have also come from the congregations. The Soma Church in Tacoma, Wash, does not own its own building but leases it at a highly discounted rate from Pastor Jeff Vanderstelt, who started a for-profit corporation independent of the church and financed by friendly investors. Not only does this approach address the issue of large churches draining public resources, but because Vandestelt’s building provides space for other businesses, it integrates the church and its members into the broader community. Bergin reports that Vanderstelt’s approach is being considered by other megachurch planters.
(World, P.O. Box 20002, Asheville, NC 28802)