Bullied pulpits

Religion | Mega-growth in the number of megachurches is sparking a backlash in communities throughout the country

Issue: "The Da Vinci craze," May 20, 2006

Architectural eyesores. Overflowing parking lots. Sunday morning traffic. Behold the megachurch as often viewed through the eyes of suspicious local residents. More than a weekly gathering place for worship or a quiet sanctuary for midweek devotions, large evangelical churches are becoming lifestyle brands, buzzing communities with perpetual religious activity. What's more, they're increasing.

A recent study from the Hartford Institute for Religion Research reveals that the number of U.S. congregations with an average weekly attendance of at least 2,000 people has more than doubled in the past five years. That dramatic spike to roughly 1,200 megachurches nationwide represents the sharpest growth since such massive blocs of parishioners first began materializing in the 1970s.

Predictably, civil opposition and the number of community grievances have spiked as well. "There is a national movement to quash the continued growth or the concept of the megachurch," said Jared N. Leland, spokesman and legal counsel for the Becket Fund, which fights religious discrimination of all kinds. "The word megachurch has negative connotations in this country. It frightens people."

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Zoning regulations and land-use permits are among the most common obstacles opponents use to hamper the existence or development of large churches. Lawsuits and public disputes over such issues are popping up with increasing regularity throughout the country. But churches are winning.

Earlier this year, Palm Beach County commissioners proposed a zoning ordinance that would cap church sizes to 750 seats and 75,000 square feet in urban settings, 500 seats and 50,000 square feet in the suburbs, and 250 seats and 25,000 square feet in rural areas. A public outcry ensued as local churchgoers from myriad denominations flooded the county with phone calls and e-mails. The commission quietly reversed course last month, having initially underestimated the ability of area churches to mobilize political action. Pastor Tim Mullins of Christ Fellowship, a church of 20,000 meeting in three south Florida locations, helped quickly correct the county's strategic oversight, admonishing his sizable congregation to take a vocal stand.

But despite apparent deference in scrapping the size-cap proposal, the county commission betrayed its casual irreverence for religious expression. Just before voting down the size cap, commissioner Jeff Koons asked sarcastically if such favorable action for churches might help the commission "get right with God." Pastor Avis Hill of Westgate Tabernacle, at whom the jab was directed, told WORLD, "The statement was completely out of order."

Subsequent county commission actions reflect no change of heart in opposing continued church growth-only a change in strategy. The addition of new parking regulations will significantly limit church expansion without drawing so much public attention. But Mr. Hill, who has long battled local officials over his unregulated use of Westgate Tabernacle to house the homeless, believes area congregations will continue to rise up: "There's a large number of people who feel like the county is being hostile toward the religious community. The county is misjudging us if they think we're just going to keep going to worship without saying or doing anything."

Municipalities often cite parking and traffic considerations as reasons for blocking megachurch development. SonRise Community Church in Scottsdale, Ariz., purchased nine acres in 1999, building a church and intending one day to construct a religious school. That plan encountered difficulty, however, when local residents convinced city officials that a twice-daily stream of no more than 200 students would present an excessive traffic burden for North Scottsdale Road. SonRise has filed suit against the city for denying its application for a conditional land-use permit despite compliance with all necessary zoning ordinances. The church alleges religious discrimination and calls for the protections outlined in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person's Act (RLUIPA), federal legislation signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000 after a unanimous run through Congress.

RLUIPA protects churches from unequal treatment in municipal land-use decisions made on a case-by-case discretionary basis. Alliance Defense Fund attorney Jeremy Tedesco, who is representing SonRise, considers the city's actions a textbook example of the need for RLUIPA: "The church went out of their way to meet the concerns of the city, the planning commission, and of all the neighbors. They had numerous open-house meetings with neighbors, cut the size of their project, and situated it in a way more favorable for the community. They were absolutely in compliance with everything, and the city still said, 'Nope, can't have it.'"

City of Scottsdale spokesman Pat Dodds told WORLD the city intends to defend its position but would not comment further. In its filing with the U.S. District Court of Arizona, the city contends that RLUIPA "is unconstitutional on its face."


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