Churches are being turned away by cities and towns that hope to enliven a fading downtown or boost their tax base.
"There's more interest than ever in attempting to exclude churches and other houses of worship," says Kevin "Seamus" Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "They say they don't want churches there. They want something that generates tax revenue."
The Liberty Legal Institute, which represents churches in religious-freedom disputes, says more communities are tightening zoning codes or considering other ways to restrict church locations.
The group received 18 calls last year from churches concerned about restrictive zoning ordinances, up from four in 2004, says Hiram Sasser, director of litigation. There have been 12 calls so far this year.
Sasser's institute, the Becket Fund and others often go to court to fight the restrictions. A federal law passed in 2000 says zoning rules must treat a house of worship the same as any secular meeting place.
The communities with restrictions say they're not against churches, they just want a variety of services.
Some recent examples:
• Kenly, N.C., adopted a moratorium on storefront churches in August and later expanded it to include halls, theaters and other gathering places.
• Stafford, Texas, home to 51 places of worship in its 7 square miles, intends to tighten the zoning rules that govern church location, Mayor Leonard Scarcella says.
• Miramar, Fla., put a six-month hold on "places of public assembly," including churches, in June and is working on a permanent plan.
• The Liberty Counsel, a group that defends churches, sued Titusville, Pa., in July over zoning that prohibits churches in commercial zones where clubs and theaters are allowed.