EFC helping churches zone in on local bylaws
Many congregations struggle to obtain zoning permits
By Mags Storey | Tuesday, July 13, 2010
OTTAWA, ONThe Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) has launched a new resource to help churches understand their constitutional rights when dealing with municipal bylaws.
"Zoned Out: Religious Freedom in the Municipality" aims to be a practical guide to help equip faith groups when faced with a zoning challenges.
Faye Sonier, associate legal counsel for the EFC, says they wrote the guide in response to "an increasing number of phone calls, emails and letters from churches, charities and faith groups who were having a hard time getting zoning permits [for] a relocation or expansion."
"Essentially it's an introductory guide," Sonier says, "to give them a basic understanding of their religious freedoms, and how they can and should engage with local governments.
"The essence of freedom of religion, as protected in the charter, as defined by the Supreme Court, is so much more that the right to just hold a belief. It includes public, communal and practical aspects [such as] worship, practice, teaching and dissemination."
Case studies in the guide indicate that sometimes local governments fail to understand how serving and engaging with the local community are integral parts of Christian worship.
One such case study comes from Don Meredith, chair of GTA FAITH Alliance, a coalition of religious organizations working together to combat youth violence.
Meredith, now pastor of Pentecostal Praise Centre Ministries in Vaughn, had been on staff at a church in Scarborough when they sought to find a new location.
While they wanted a residential property in the heart of a neighborhood, "the city and the politicians would have none of it," Meredith says. "The residents were up in arms. You'd think people would want churches in a residential community, but they interpreted it as something negative."
Existing bylaws in Scarborough only allowed them to take over a building that was already zoned for worship. "And no one wanted to give up their church," Meredith says.
But after working with local politicians, bylaws were eventually changed to allow places of worship in industrial zones.
While thankful for the bylaw changes, Meredith still mourns the loss of opportunities that a neighborhood church would have provided.
"We would have been right across from a high school," he says. "So many programs could have been run out of there: mentoring programs, community programs. Too many churches are now relegated to industrial parks. I believe churches need to open themselves up to community and allow more community programs to take place in their buildings."
Sonier adds, "I think these challenges are a real opportunity for churches to play an education role, because from what we've seen from the evidence there's a lack of understanding of what an evangelical congregation does."
She says that while in some cases granting a church zoning permission can result in a small loss of land tax revenue for a municipality, the contribution those faith groups can make to the community can more than compensate.
"I want to encourage those who are facing problems to get their local counselor on side," Meredith says. "Plead your case with the local representatives. It also doesn't hurt to take it up to the next level of government.
"We need to help politicians see the value that churches bring into a neighborhood. We are meeting an immediate need. Food banks are run out of these facilities, and day cares, and Sunday school, and kids are being mentored in something positive... We need to go back to seeing churches as the heart of the community."