Church's Plan to Worship At D.C. Theater Hits Snarl

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

McLean Bible Church's plan to hold Sunday worship services in the Uptown theater in the District's Cleveland Park neighborhood has been dealt a setback by D.C. zoning officials.

Matthew Le Grant, the city's acting zoning administrator, has ruled that the church must apply for special permission to operate in the historic movie theater, a process that could delay the church's plans to offer services there starting in January.

The news cheered opponents of the worship services. They have been lobbying city officials since the church announced in July that it had leased the 800-seat Uptown on Sunday mornings. Even though the theater's operator has said the weekly worship schedule would not interfere with its movie schedule, neighborhood activists have said they feared the services would change the nature of the Uptown.

"It's the devil we know; it's the devil we love," said George Idelson, president of the Cleveland Park Citizens Association. "We would like it to keep running movies. . . . That's what it's there for, and that's what we like about it."

Generally, churches can operate anywhere in the District by right, except in designated commercial enclaves. The area around the Uptown is one of them.

In his ruling, issued last week, Le Grant said the church could not use the Uptown's certificate of occupancy.

"The proposed church use is not accessory to the theater use, but is, in fact, a separate use," he said in a letter to the church's attorneys.

As such, the church needs to apply to the Board of Zoning Adjustment for a special zoning exception.

The decision is a blow to the church, which has considered the Uptown site a key part of its campaign to embrace the Washington area with a "spiritual beltway," nine satellite campuses radiating out from its central site in Vienna. There, the church, one of the largest in the country, has a sprawling facility that overflows with an average weekly worship attendance of 13,000.

In February, it opened its first satellite site with a Monday night service at the Rosslyn Spectrum in Arlington County. And plans are on track to lease space in Loudoun County on Sunday mornings at Prison Fellowship Ministries in Landsdowne, starting in January. At that site, and at the Uptown, it wants to beam in the sermon of its senior minister, the Rev. Lon Solomon, while offering the remainder of the service, such as additional preaching and music, with personnel on site.

But in Cleveland Park, residents have rallied against the church, saying they fear hundreds of Sunday morning worshipers would tie up traffic and cause parking problems in streets already clogged with cars.

D.C. Council member Mary M. Che (D-Ward 3) has met with church officials and neighborhood residents. The church, she said, promised to encourage worshipers to take the Metro and to send volunteers into the neighborhoods to ensure that worshipers did not double-park or block residents' cars.

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