Legal opinion answers prayer 

When it comes right down to it, bowling alleys aren’t all that different from churches: both bring people together for regular assemblies (not to mention a smashing good time).

Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent reached a similar conclusion last month and issued an opinion allowing churches to locate next to businesses such as bowling alleys, funeral homes and restaurants in neighborhoods zoned for light industrial use. Currently, the city’s light industrial zoning doesn’t permit churches, but Missoula Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) staff say they won’t enforce the provision in light of Nugent’s Nov. 27 legal opinion and will permanently change it during the city’s zoning regulation overhaul now underway.

The question was raised recently by South Hills Evangelical Church (SHEC), which moved into a large warehouse formerly owned by Montana Rail Link about four years ago. John Luhmann, SHEC’s associate pastor, says the church relocated to the former industrial building near Southgate Mall because it was cost-effective.

“With the nature of our church and what we do, we need a fairly good-sized facility but we don’t have the money within our congregation to be able to afford a big, fancy building,” says Luhmann.

Since the move, SHEC has undertaken a number of remodeling projects, which brought the zoning quandary to OPG’s attention. When Nugent considered the issue, he found that local zoning districts which exclude churches while sanctioning other gatherings likely run afoul of Montana human rights laws as well as other anti-discrimination provisions in state law, since “it is a basic human right to be free from creed and religious discrimination in public accommodation and assemblage.”

“The City of Missoula has a significant legal problem attempting to prohibit churches in the I-1 industrial zone based on the activity being church service or prayer service related,” he wrote.

SHEC’s Luhmann says he’s glad to see the issue laid to rest: “We’re thankful for it,” he says. “It’s good to see [the city] is being fair and trying to do the right thing.”
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