Land Use Intersects with the Culture Wars

The American Center for Law and Justice has filed a federal lawsuit against Fairfax County on behalf of the McLean Bible Church. The suit challenges a finding that the county zoning code prohibited Bible study and religious ministry classes at the church because the church did not include them as part of its special use permit issued in 1999!! If the church wanted to conduct study classes, the county said, it must qualify as a college or university… Or, so says the ACLJ’s version of the story in a press release issued today.

“Like any other house of worship in the country, an integral part of the church’s ministry is a study of the Bible, and the writings and beliefs sacred to its religion,” said Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the ACLJ. “When Fairfax County approved the church’s use permit there was no issue that religious education, which had already taken place at the church since the 1980s, was a central aspect of its mission.”

The suit asserts that Fairfax County’s actions violated the church’s constitutional rights to religious free exercise, freedom of speech and association, and equal protection.

In 2001, the church entered into an agreement with Capitol Bible Seminary to administer some aspects of its Bible study and religious ministry classes. The church does not issue any academic credit, nor does it attempt to confer any academic degrees. However, because CBS may award credit for classes held at the church, the county maintains that the church must obtain qualification as a college or university in order for classes to continue.

In response, the ACLJ contends, the church is a house of worship and has no desire to be officially recognized as a college or university. Said Sekulow: “When the government acts to ban religious activity through zoning or land use regulations, the … law requires it to show it has a compelling, overriding interest supporting its action. Fairfax County has made no such showing.”

[Concluding paragraph deleted. Author’s explanation can be read in the comments.]

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8 responses to “Land Use Intersects with the Culture Wars”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Do I understand this correctly that the COLLEGE is using the church as a place to hold classes?

    Or is the college just kindly conducting a few seminars at the church for only church members?

    If it’s scenario one, then I’d think the county has some standing. If it’s scenario 2, then that’s no different that a local bible study headed by a pastor or deacon.

    It really doesn’t matter if the “church” is issuing credit for classes. Is some entity issuing credit for classes? If so, then it sounds like the “college” is looking for a rent-free way to conduct for-credit classes.

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    5:50. The McLean Bible Church is presently offering graduate level courses in theology and, perhaps, other subjects. The Church has an agreement with Capital Bible Seminary to house the classes. The operation of a graduate school is classified as a college or university under the zoning ordinance in Fairfax County. MBC does not have permission to operate as a college or university.

    There is also neighborhood concern that, if the graduate school is permitted to continue, undergraduate classes would be next.

    I hope this discussion helps clarify the nature of the dispute.

  3. James Atticus Bowden Avatar
    James Atticus Bowden

    The County is way out of line. What County ordnance specifies such interference – is it on line?

  4. NoVA Scout Avatar
    NoVA Scout

    JAB: toomanytaxes seems to sum it up rather succinctly. It sounds like a fairly technical violation that could be rectified. Zoning tends to be very much a “cookbook” process. You’ve got to follow the recipe. It shouldn’t make any difference whether it’s MBC or a dry cleaning establishment. I’m sure they can work it through, but litigation doesn’t seem like a good first step.

  5. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    The McLean Bible Church was permitted to expand under three special exceptions that were granted by Fairfax County. The Church requested an interpretation of those exceptions to permit, among others, the operation of graduate seminary classes by Capital Bible Seminary on the property. The County ruled that the special exceptions did not cover the operation of graduate school classes and that the Church would need to seek further permission to engage in that activity.

    As I recall, the Church has been and is continuing to challenge that ruling. Not surprisingly, there is strong local opposition from many neighbors to the Church’s request and there would likely be very strong opposition to any further request for expansion of the Church’s facilities or uses thereof.

    The Church is a large congregation located on the former National Wildlife Federation site on Route 7 (Leesburg Pike), slightly west of the Dulles Toll Road and Tysons Corner. The Church is well-attended on weekends and generates considerable traffic. One of the major concerns is that, given its location near Tysons Corner, the operation of a graduate school and, possibly, an undergraduate one as well, on weekdays would add to the already unacceptable traffic conditions on Route 7 and would create even more spillover traffic on nearby neighborhood streets.

    This is about operating a college and not about operating a church’s basic mission to it congregants.

  6. This is also about operating a college that is NOT approved to operate in Virginia by SCHEV. Capitol Bible College is not listed on SCHEV’s website as an IHE certified to operate in Virginia, and that includes only offering courses if they are for degree credit.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    I based my original comments upon a press release written by the American Center for Law and Justice. As some of the comments above make clear, reinforced by private correspondence, the ACLJ was telling only one side of the story.

    It’s an interesting case, and worth examining closely. But I am withholding judgment of any kind and, therefore, deleting the conclusion in the original post that said Fairfax County is overreaching. As more evidence surfaces, that may prove to be the case. But the facts are less clear-cut than suggested by the ACLJ.

  8. Jeremy Hinton Avatar
    Jeremy Hinton

    Not having the in-depth familiairity with the history of this dispute as other earlier posters on this thread do, im only going to mention my perceptions of whats happening here.

    Religion has a wonderful way of being a candle for the moths (and i mean that in a negative sense). Remove the religious aspect from this, and i imagine this becomes just a local zoning issue, with local ramifications. However, since this does involve religion, it attracts much larger interests (on both sides of the argument) with no local stake in the matter, who it seems are inflating this to be about something its not.

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