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."
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."
Such a challenge to the federally imposed religious protection is unlikely to make much headway in court. RLUIPA was forged over nine congressional hearings and three years as a constitutionally sound replacement for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, an overreaching bill that violated individual states' rights. RLUIPA has proved invaluable in allowing the megachurch revolution. "It fortifies the wall of protection of religious exercise," said Mr. Leland. "The First Amendment can certainly stand on its own, but RLUIPA sharpens the teeth of the argument and gives it a bigger bite."
Land-use protection is central to the constitutionally guaranteed freedom to exercise religion. (Few churches could operate successfully on a boat or in a plane.) But local governments are increasingly opposed to large congregations filling prime sections of real estate-not because of anti-religious fervor so much as for financial considerations. "Municipalities would rather use that space for commercial retail or economic development," Mr. Leland explained. "When you get these 6,000- or 10,000-people congregations that are taking up substantial space, the municipalities are looking at the bucks and thinking, 'Boy, that's a mall, or a Costco, or a Sears, or a Home Depot that's going to generate tremendous tax revenue."
Christ Church in Montclair, N.J., has encountered such opposition in its attempted 20-mile move west to Rockaway Township. The 5,000-person congregation purchased a 107-acre campus from a departing technology company with the intention of renovating the facility for Sunday services and midweek programming. Critics worry about the loss of property taxes and influx of traffic. Rockaway mayor Louis Sceusi has questioned how the township would benefit from allowing such a move.
But Christ Church spokesman Marc Weinstein told WORLD that the church's exhaustive efforts to accommodate local concerns have met an uncompromising brick wall of prejudice: "There are certain individuals in the township that do not want the church at any cost. You can't keep a church out of a community just because you don't like the church."
After two years of failed attempts at a neighborly resolution, Christ Church filed a lawsuit last August to protect its interests in the $14 million property. The U.S. Department of Justice has also launched an investigation into whether Rockaway Township violated RLUIPA by changing a zoning ordinance specifically to exclude Christ Church. The church is hopeful such pressure might yield a favorable resolution by midsummer. "There is no condition for the township to reject the church's application solely based on its size," Mr. Weinstein said.
Questions loom as to how effective an evangelical church can be after enduring a highly publicized spat with its neighbors. But Mr. Leland believes continued success in such lawsuits and public debates will help reduce future discrimination, allowing megachurches to continue their unprecedented takeover as the nation's dominant form of religious assembly: "What communities and local governments are beginning to realize is that there are groups here to fight for religious institutions."
Christians in megachurches without land-use battles can play a role as well, showering communities with service to help alter negative perceptions. "America has changed its attitude towards religion," said Mr. Tedesco. "Where religion and churches used to be viewed as a great thing for the community-a place for congregations to worship together, play together, and serve together-now, they're seen as a nuisance, especially large churches." Lawsuits won't change that.