A few months back, there was a whole lot of fuss when a zoning official required permits for a home Bible study. When all was said and done, no doubt due to a lot of outrage, it ended up being dropped.
The sad thing is, there were Christians in favor of requiring permits, or even putting restrictions on home Bible studies… All in the interest of keeping their property values higher. It was not the importance of people coming to Christ, growing in discipleship, or even exercising freedom of religion, but more so their property values. Money appeared an even greater concern than the constitution, the great commission, and even the salvation of souls.
Its a sad deal indeed, when Christians put aside discipleship, when they put aside the needs of the local church, when they put aside the constitutional provisions for freedom of religion. Society as a whole sees this, and then no wonder (as taken from Newt Gingrich) that American culture has been marked by “a steady increase in hostility to religion over the last 70 or 80 years, in ways that are a profound challenge, both to Western Civilization and to America as we know it.”
I’m into church history, not so much our nations history… but 1000:1, Quakers would be spitting tacks with the cavalier and greed driven attitudes of much of contemporary Christianity when it comes to freedom of religious practices.
Sure, Christians will fuss over loosing a nativity scene, loosing a display of the ten commandments on public ground, or restrictions on prayer in schools. Those are easy, as they are of little to no cost personally to fuss over… but for far too many, as soon as the call to follow Christ comes, and that it might mean personal monetary sacrifice, Christ looses. I know this all too well… its easy to get caught up in mammon, which is why I tend to be pretty hard core about not doing so going forward.
Now, for those who do not want to sell out Christ or the constitution, this is not the type of deal where one can sit back fat dumb, and happy. For those drafting the zoning regulations, they get pounded on by the economic powers that be, so much so, they may forget things like the constitution, and if they do remember it, they will try to whittle around it due to the pressure they are under.
Even for the faithful drafters of legislation, they may feel they are duty bound to do so as they have to serve all, and thus exception for faith related issues seem out of place. Then add in that the the constitution is so commonly sold out, restricting freedom of religion may in a perverted sense may actually appear the “right” thing to do.
The best way to make sure Jesus is kept first, and that the constitution is upheld is for Christians to be proactive. Its a whole lot better to make ones views known, and lobby before regulations are approved, than having to jump hoops, and spend a kazillion dollars to get them overturned after the fact.
As such, lets look at a few different points of view when it comes to the zoning issue, and practices of the church.
Churches need the ultimate flexibility when it comes to what their work may entail. Perhaps its a commercial looking operation, say a religious bookstore in a facility, or perhaps a kitchen to prepare meals, or perhaps a soup kitchen, or even a homeless shelter, daycare, or school which might fall within a churches domain, or something unusual like a waiver against noise ordinances when it comes to church bells or carillons.
Even public safety issues like new/remodeled construction building codes for kitchens, schools, daycare, housing, while possibly good ideas could interfere with faith practices. If so, and if following Christ and the constitution are held in high regard, reasonable exemptions should be lobbied for and drafted into the regs. The key is reasonable, ie the FDNY code is incredibly intense, and churches are exempt from some parts, but as a touring Christian musician years ago, well, lets just say I learned of some exemptions the hard way. Those lobbying went too far, reasonable is key when it comes to public safety.
Usage on the other hand is another matter entirely. Pretty much any usage a church is led * to via scripture, needs to be as free as possible from government restriction. First, in order to foster the churches mission, but also to uphold their constitutional rights to freely practice their religion.
Fortunately, the courts sometimes do come down on the side of the church and the constitution in such matters. That is of course, when the church has enough money to take it that far, or a religious freedom or constitutional rights organization such as Alliance Defense Fund or the ACLU can step in. In far too many cases, the church simply gives up or runs out of money, and both they, and the constitution loose out to greed.
By the same token, there does need to be a limited level of definition. Just as churches are granted freedom to practice their faith as they see fit… unscrupulous entities must not be allowed to take on the appearance of the church to run rampant over a communities zoning laws. Ie, Acme widget manufacturing, should not be able to call themselves First Acme Church of Widgets to get around zoning codes. The courts have also read through the lines, when a commercial entity tries to call themselves a church in order to build multifamily or transient housing in areas where such is outside the scope of such usage, they do almost always get their chain yanked.
Of course, between the two, ie a church whose primary functions are worship and service, and a disguised church whose primary function is the activity they wish to bypass zoning for, is a significant amount of grey area. Accessory service of churches can include quite a range of activities, some of which might come pretty close to making them appear primarily not so much like a place of worship anymore. Thats the subtle nuance that sadly leads to a ton of headaches and legal hoop jumping.
I do think the process is something every Christian should be aware of and take part in, such that their church doesn’t get put in the position down the road of having to choose whether to follow Christ or follow the law of Caesar. Most certainly there should never be any restrictions on home Bible studies, nor any other activities that clearly fall within the churches mission. That is of course, unless one ranks the importance of money more so than the words of Christ.
*one caveat… churches, and even home Bible study groups should be good neighbors. Just because the constitution grants freedom to practices ones faith, it should not result in a damaging witness to ones neighbor. Blocking neighbors driveways by errant parking, excessive noise all hours of the day or night is not cool. Bearing in mind of course that the cross is offensive… The word of God should never be compromised to placate those who take offense.