House -- or house of worship?

Baltimore County: Occasional services in a home basement don't make for a religious institution.

August 06, 1999

A BALTIMORE County hearing officer has ruled that an occasional prayer service in a basement doesn't transform a home into a religious institution. As a result, Seth and Lisa Pachino of Owings Mills won't have to obtain a "change in occupancy" permit to hold these periodic services.

What makes this an interesting case is that it was more about zoning regulations and building codes than religious freedom.

The issue before hearing officer Stanley Schapiro was whether the Pachinos had converted their home from a dwelling into a synagogue. The county's Division of Code Enforcement contended that by holding religious services, the Pachinos altered the intended use of their home and that is subject to government review.

The pivotal question was this: At what point does a house become a house of worship? A minyan, 10 Jewish men, periodically gathered on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, at the Pachino house.

Mr. Schapiro properly determined that by inviting guests to worship with them, the Pachinos were not operating a synagogue.

Had the services been more frequent or if the house had been used as a school, the ruling could have gone the other way. The principle remains that government has a legitimate interest in determining whether a parcel of land or a structure can accommodate religious activities.

Pub Date: 8/06/99

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