Sure, McLean Bible Church can offer Sunday school classes, but when do classes cross the line from being a church to being an educational institution? That is the essence of the question before the Fairfax County Board of Zoning Appeals.
The answer will have to wait until June 6, when the board is scheduled to make its ruling on an appeal filed by the church concerning college-level classes held on its campus.
Capital Bible Seminary, a school based in Lanham, Md., had been holding classes at McLean Bible Church as a sort of satellite campus. The seminary had both a library and administrative offices on the site of the 229,400-square-foot church on Leesburg Pike.
In 2004, the Fairfax County Zoning Administrator ruled that these classes, which could lead to a degree, fell outside the scope of traditional religious classes held at churches. The church appealed this determination, but in March 2005, the Board of Zoning Appeals sided with the county.
Subsequently, the church has reduced the operation, said Stuart Mendelsohn, attorney for the church. Mendelsohn, who is also a parishioner at the church, served as member of the Board of Supervisors from the Dranesville District until leaving office in 2003.
The church has severed its ties with Capital Bible Seminary, which no longer has a library or offices on the grounds, he said. However, it will still offer the classes. “The church considers these seminary level classes to be part of their Christian education program,” he said.
Mendelsohn said that the church, not the seminary, will be in control of the registration and the coursework. However, he also said that the church will likely use professors from Capital Bible Seminary, and acknowledged that the professors will probably want to generate their own syllabi.
STUDENTS WILL PAY their tuition to the church, which will then use the money to hire the professors. Mendelsohn said that the church routinely charges fees to defray the costs of its programs and asserted that this case was no different.
Based on these changes to the operation, the church once again asked the zoning administrator for permission to hold the classes and was once again denied. The church appealed that decision to the Board of Zoning Appeals which heard the case on April 18.
“Even when it’s reduced in scope, it’s still a college,” said Jane Collins of the Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning. Collins went on to say that during a site visit, county staff saw an office suite dedicated to Capital Bible Seminary, including a permanent sign on the wall.
“We wrestled with it quite a bit,” said William Shoup, zoning administrator. “The bottom line was … they could lead to a degree.” He disputed the assertion that the church would control the curriculum. He said that Capital Bible Seminary is in the process of becoming accredited, and to be accredited, an institution must be in control of its course content.
“There are numerous schools that have branch campuses,” Shoup said. “What we have here is a branch campus of Capital Bible Seminary.”
Capital Bible Seminary also still advertises McLean Bible Church as one of its Northern Virginia locations. This information was up on the seminary Web site even as the hearing was going on.
Mendelsohn said that the changes have been made, and that if the signs have not yet come down they soon will. He also said that the church has no control over what the seminary posts on its Web site.
FROM A LAND use perspective, the number of students is trivial, said Mendelsohn. There are about 100 students who take these classes, he said, and not all of them do so for credit. That number pales next to the 13,000-14,000 congregants who come to Sunday worship services each week, said Mendelsohn.
There are also nearly 8,000 students who attend religious education classes (known as McLean University), at the church, he said. The county has not taken any action to regulate the other religious education classes.
Neighbors in the area are more concerned with regulating the seminary-level classes.
If the church were to go through the county’s permitting process, they say there could be some level of control.
“Establish some limits in terms of the number of students — in terms of the hours of operation,” said Robert Nelson, a nearby resident.
Other neighbors noted that it could be possible to define many uses which would require permits as a church ministry. “What if nursing home care or drug treatment were a church ministry?” said Jane Edmonson, president of the Lewinsville Coalition.
Two pastors from other nearby churches came to speak in defense of the operations.
“It is not at all unusual for a church to offer seminary level classes for its lay members,” said John Yates of The Falls Church, which is located in the City of Falls Church.
Board members looked over the amount of materials they had gotten surrounding the case, and decided they would need some time to sort out the details of the case. The board deferred its decision to June 6.
“I would really like to see this church be able to do this,” said Board member V. Max Beard, “but I would like to see some harmony with the neighbors.”