Churches are often hubbubs of activity in any town, and not just on Sundays. Large weddings and wedding receptions have been held in neighborhood churches for more than a century. Churches routinely rent space to brides and grooms for a fee or wedding parties gift money to the church in exchange for space.
On any given day of the week, choir practice, clubs and socials groups may meet in church to pray, organize activities, study the Bible or do community outreach. And larger churches often boast their own bookstores, daycare centers and coffee houses to generate income. But in the case of one San Francisco church in Palo Alto, California it may all be coming to an end.
First Baptist Church sits unassuming in Palo Alto, a city in the San Francisco Bay area, and has been a neighborhood fixture for 125 years serving the poor and needy of its community. Like many churches, it looks for ways to generate income in order to meet the needs of those coming to them for assistance and to maintain the property. It’s also just one of thousands of churches that lets space in order to remain in the black in a wildly expensive real estate area.
For years, First Baptist has let its second floor building to music classes, choirs, and dance clubs, as well as hosting dinners and weddings, that is until the city decided that they are now a nuisance and is coming after them. The city code enforcement office told church officials they must cease all non-religious activities and that its tenants, which include a music school, a psychologist and the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, must get out by August 17 or face severe fines.
City officials cite complaints from neighbors about traffic and parking and have fixated on the fact that the church is in a zoned residential area as the main cause of contention. Despite the fact that the church has been located in the same spot for 125 years, city bureaucrats decided that, rather than working with the church to resolve any neighborhood complaints, they would evict the church’s tenants and hamstring their budget.
The question isn’t really whether residents are complaining of activities, but why the city wants to punish the church for letting space under fair market rates in the tight San Francisco real estate market. What’s at issue here is whether San Francisco is tolerant of Christian churches and activities in its midst and whether First Baptist Church’s contributions to the neighborhood outweighs the city’s rather lame argument on zoning snafus. But let’s first address the charges against the church’s right to lease its space.
If an organization is a valid 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and notwithstanding any property tax issues, the church may rent space for free or less than fair market value rates. If a church has been receiving less than fair market value rent from someone, there are a number of things a church can do, such as issuing the tenant a form 1099 for the difference.
Rent received for personal property is generally considered by churches as undisclosed business income (UBI) and rent received from real property may or may not be considered UBI. For example, if a church property is debt financed, any rent received for any use of the building is considered UBI. If there is no debt on the building or even say, a new HVAC system, any rent received is not considered UBI. It also depends on whether what is being rented is considered real or personal property. In light of this, the cities demand that First Baptist cease leasing to its current renters because it is a non-church activity is weak indeed.
The city’s argument that the church sits in a residential zoned neighborhood also isn’t a powerful legal argument. The church has been located on the same corner for 125 years, regardless of whether it was legally grandfathered in. Most courts would have to take this into consideration on any zoning issue.
No, what I smell here is the rotten core of tyrannical anti-religious government, specifically toward the Christian religion. Rather than work with the church to resolve any neighborhood issues on parking or noise, which I concede may be valid, their immediate reaction is to come after the church. And San Francisco city officials have a history of meddling in church business.
San Francisco, once the bastion of tolerance has become intolerable. Longtime Mayor Ed Lee when responding to Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy after he said he wasn’t keen on same-sex marriage because it violated his religious beliefs tweeted, “Very disappointed #ChickFilA doesn’t share San Francisco’s values & strong commitment to equality for everyone.” And in a second tweet, Lee again showed his contempt for the religious beliefs of Christians by saying, “Closest #ChickFilA to San Francisco is 40 miles away & I strongly recommend that they not try to come any closer.”
This coming from the same Mayor who banned any city staff travel to North Carolina after its controversial bill to ban transgenders from using any bathroom with the gender they identified with and his travel ban to Indiana because of their religious laws.
A San Francisco city and county board resolution officially labeled the Catholic church’s moral teachings on homosexuality as “insulting to all San Franciscans,” “hateful,” “defamatory,” “insensitive,” and “ignorant” and was challenged in court for violating the Constitution’s prohibition of government hostility toward religion.
Resolution 168-08, passed unanimously by the City and County of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors two years ago, also accused the Vatican of being a “foreign country” meddling with and attempting to “negatively influence (San Francisco’s) existing and established customs.”
Clearly, San Francisco wants a post-church world. Although the city is not tolerant of Christian beliefs, it has demonstrated its desire to protect illegal immigrants and the Muslim community. In response to President Trump’s proposal to create a Muslim registry, an ordinance was passed that banned the creation or implementation of a database based on religion, national origin or ethnicity. In light of this, it seems fair to label San Francisco city officials as anti-Christian.
Christians who know their Bible and understand the times in which we live in today are not surprised by the institutional hostility against churches that has begun in earnest in the United States. To date, we have been allowed to worship freely and were welcomed in most neighborhoods, but this is not the same America of the 1950s. “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Mark 13:13)
Although Christians understand how the story ends, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to remain vigilant as government and organizations seek to strip us of our religious liberties. The post-church world has arrived and it is not the time to go back to sleep. Reign well.