The recent situation in San Diego in which the city attempted to use zoning regulations to shut down a home Bible study as well as the Texas Supreme Court case involving a ministry for prison parolees started by a Corpus Christi church are snapshots of a problem long overlooked in the battle for property rights and religious liberty.
The effort by a city of San Diego “code enforcement officer” to force Pastor David Jones to acquire a very costly usage permit for conducting the Bible study is reflective of a frequent abuse of regulatory authority by low-level bureaucrats over both religious exercise and church property. The city has backed off and apologized to Pastor Jones, claiming the officer “incorrectly made the finding based in no small measure on unclear language.”
The Texas case resulted from a city ordinance that retroactively prohibited the location of two church-sponsored rehabilitation homes for non-violent parolees. Pastor Rick Barr and Grace Fellowship Church had begun the ministry to bring Christ-centered “hope and change” that has changed lives and therefore made the community better as a result. The state high court upheld the church and ruled against the city.
Other examples are cities that are either overtly or covertly restricting where churches can build worship facilities in commercially zoned areas for the simple reason that they see it as a “drain” on sales tax revenues collected. Pastor Albert Salazar of New Life Church in Missouri City, Texas, fought the city code enforcement bureaucracies for several years before deciding to sell that property and move outside the city.
Pastor Burt Smith of Living Water Church in Olympia, Wash., faced the fury of the environmentalist agenda in trying to build additional structures and parking on their existing property. The oppressive use of “wetlands” designation was one tool used against the church as they found that not only could they not build, but they could not use that part of the property – therefore rendering it worthless and unable to sell to recoup even its cost.
Every church family who engages in new construction or renovation expects that they must comply with the same building codes as any commercial building, and as a public safety issue in large part, those codes are generally reasonable. The irrationality or even hostility usually come in the form of those like the aforementioned “code enforcement officer” who can, and frequently do, make the pastor’s life a virtual hell by selective or inaccurate interpretations.
I have assisted in numerous situations that required intervention by elected city or county officials who theoretically make the policies and codes in question and to whom the inspectors are accountable. The pastors find out very quickly why it makes a substantial difference who holds that office, what their beliefs and values are and whether there is a listening ear or a closed door.
The common link to these situations is local elected officials who have perpetuated or allowed excessive, onerous and often directly unconstitutional laws and ordinances to be passed. Even pastors and churches who do take the responsibility for the direction of our government seriously most often overlook the critical impact that these lower levels have on our lives, subsequently failing to assure we put the right people there.
The result is that again and again we are forced to defend basic rights in the court system in a costly and time-consuming process that is fraught with many uncertainties.
There are many reasons for raising the bar on identifying called, capable and qualified leaders from our churches to run for local municipal offices as well as making sure that every qualified citizen in our churches is casting an informed vote. Among these:
- It is our biblical and constitutional duty to do so. Leaving a vacuum for the ungodly, amoral and corrupt to fill in local, state and federal government offices is a sin.
- The direct impact through taxation and regulation these myriad municipalities have on our lives can be far greater and more immediate than Washington, D.C.
- These offices serve as an outstanding and essential “boot camp” for higher offices so candidates for each level up the governmental ladder are seasoned and qualified to serve – our “farm team” if you will.
When the Houston City Council proposed a drainage fee on churches and schools for the first time in 2003 that would have cost many small, urban congregations thousands of dollars, we heard from even “conservative” city council members that the churches just “need to pay their fair share.” The underlying attitude was that the church is a net drain on city resources rather than a cornerstone of social and economic stability.
Their ignorance was fortunately defeated but revealed the disconnect many politicians have regarding the value of the churches to the cities – presuming we actually are of value, which is another issue for another day.
What pastors had better realize is that our freedom to gather as a church body is not only under attack through the more easily identified weapons of direct religious persecution, but insidiously under the quiet, steady encroachment on basic private property rights.