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Cole files bill to back church in school fight with city

Del. Mark Cole has filed a bill in the General Assembly that would allow churches to run day-care centers or schools without getting special permits from their local government.

The bill comes after a lengthy fight between the Fredericksburg city council and Calvary Christian Center about the church’s efforts to add a day school for disabled children. The city denied the church’s application for a special use permit for the day school. The church sued, and lost in a court ruling last November.

A federal district court judge, Judge John A. Gibney Jr., issued an opinion rejecting the church’s claims of discrimination and that the school was part of its religious mission; he said the church had not shown the school curriculum would be anything but secular.

Cole’s bill says that for local zoning purposes, any zoning that allows religious institutions shall permit private schools or day-care centers run by a religious institution. It also spells out that localities “shall not require a special use permit for such private schools or child day care centers or impose conditions more restrictive than those imposed on religious institutions generally.”

That would, if passed, upend the city’s position on the Calvary Christian Center’s application.

Cole said he filed the bill because he feels zoning rules across the state are inconsistent, and that churches shouldn’t have to get government permission to operate schools.

Churches already have to abide by building codes, capacity limits and other building rules for safety purposes, Cole said.

If those churches then want to run a school as part of their ministry, he said, “why should government regulate that? Why should they have to jump through additional hoops?”

Cole said he hasn’t gotten a sense of what his bill’s chances are with other lawmakers.

Council member Fred Howe has written to Cole and other area legislators, urging opposition to Cole’s bill. In an email, Howe said Cole’s bill would “open (a) Pandora’s box” and could affect the owners of property that adjoins churches.