The clergy may have a special place in heaven, but not in Fairfax County.

Religious groups, which are nonprofit, must go through the same expensive building process as for-profit companies.

That practice has triggered debate about whether Fairfax goes too far in its effort to separate church from state.

Even the smallest congregations in the county must spend $20,000 to $50,000 in legal and planning fees just to discover whether they have permission to build a church or temple.

In addition, the county charges religious groups higher rent than all other nonprofit groups using its public schools on weekends.

After five years, the rent -- $500 to $3,000 a month depending on the classroom or auditorium size -- doubles for religious groups but remains unchanged for other nonprofit groups. After the sixth year, the rent triples and so forth.

Fairfax school officials argue that the accelerating fee schedule gives religious groups incentive to leave, clears the waiting list for other congregations and helps avoid a perception that county money is subsidizing money-collecting religious groups.

School Board Chairman Kohann H. Whitney (Centreville) said the fee schedule has been longstanding, and referred inquiries to lawyers.

Fairfax County Attorney David T. Stitt said there are many ways to interpret the Constitution's command that government neither help nor hurt the exercise of religion.

"We can't pick on them, we can't hinder them," said Stitt, adding that the courts have upheld Fairfax's approach to religious groups.

However, Michael McConnell, a law professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on church and state issues, said the increasing rate "only for religious groups strikes me as flatly unconstitutional."

"I can't imagine any argument {for the differing rates} that wouldn't be laughable," McConnell said.

Several Fairfax County supervisors said that they would be willing to ease building restrictions on religious groups and thought that the school system should reexamine its fee schedule.

"I think we should waive some of the regulations for churches," said Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III (R-Mason). "We're making them widen roads {and comply with regulations} that are are too expensive for groups trying to live hand to mouth."

"I've heard the horror stories about the time and money it takes to build churches," Davis added. "I agree with the ministers on this one."

Montgomery County charges religious groups using its schools the same as other nonprofit organizations. Gail Ayers, the Montgomery official overseeing community use of county schools, said she gets many calls from citizens bothered that public schools are being used for religious purposes, but said she is instructed to treat religious organizations like all other groups.

Fairfax officials also receive voluminous complaints about religious meetings in secular schools and about parking problems and commotion created by religious groups.

Donald Crigler, a Fairfax architect who has represented churches at several public hearings, said the construction of churches and temples in neighborhoods polarizes communities far more than one might expect.

"People seem to go in two directions: You get those who are strongly opposed to anything involving religion and you get very strong advocates," Crigler said. "Instead of working together, people tend to circle the wagons and get ready for a fight."