Churches can be a hubbub 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 let 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. Some churches even have bookstores, daycare centers, and coffee houses that generate income, but in the case of one San Francisco church in Palo Alto, it may all be coming to an end.
The First Baptist Church in Palo Alto has been on the same spot for 125 years serving the poor and the needy of its community, and like most 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. First Baptist Church is just one of thousands of churches that has let space for years on 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 the church 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 claim that there have been complaints 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. Never mind that the church has been located in the same spot for 125 years, some wonk working in the city has decided that rather than working with the church to resolve any neighborhood complaints, they are going to evict the church’s tenants and hamstring their budget.
The question isn’t really whether residents are complaining of activities or the city wants to punish the church for letting space under fair market rates in the tight San Francisco real estate market. No, the real question is whether San Franciso is tolerant of Christian churches and whether having First Baptist Church in the neighborhood benefits the community. But let’s first address the charges against the church.
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, then 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, then any rent received is not considered UBI. It also depends on whether what is being rented is considered real or personal property. According to what I was able to find on the church’s zoning, it was not grandfathered in the zoning plan and it does sit in a residential zoned neighborhood.
As to city officials claim that the church’s activities are disruptive to the neighborhood, I find that hard to believe. The church has been located on the same corner for 125 years. The charge that the church is located in a residential neighborhood is also weak due to the longstanding location of the church, regardless of whether it was formerly grandfathered in. Its longstanding location is a powerful legal argument. 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, 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.
A San Francisco city and county board resolution that officially labeled the Catholic church’s moral teachings on homosexuality as “insulting to all San Franciscans,” “hateful,” “defamatory,” “insensitive” and “ignorant” 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 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.”
San Francisco, once the bastion of tolerance has become intolerable. Long-time 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 beliefts, tweeted, “Very disappointed #ChickFilA doesn’t share San Francisco’s values & strong commitment to equality for everyone.” And in a second tweet, he 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.
Clearly, San Franciso is not tolerant when it comes to religious rights. It also toutes itself as a sanctuary city, giving shelter to illegal immigrants. In response to President Trump’s idea of a Muslim registry, an ordiance to block the city from creating or implenting a database based on religion, national origin or ethnicity was passed. In light of this, it seems fair to label San Franciso 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)