After an emotional and vigorous public hearing that focused alternately on land use and the separation of church and state, the Fairfax County Planning Comission this week approved a proposal that would allow churches to provide shelter for the homeless.

Because the zoning law revision also spells out uses to which church facilities may be put, fundamentalist Christians came by the busload, along with members of a conservative nonprofit group identified as the Rutherford Institute, to challenge the county's right to govern anything churches may do.

Planning commission members repeatedly told opponents of the new regulations at a heated five-hour hearing Wednesday night that they were trying to protect churches from having every program evaluated on the basis of land-use. "This is a land-use question," commission member Rosemarie Annunziata said. "It will not define your religion."

But many of those in the standing-room-only audience charged that the county government was trying to regulate religion.

"The express stated purpose is to control all functions inside the places of worship," said Neil Markva, of the Rutherford Institute. Markva said the institute is a nonprofit nationwide group with offices in the Manassas area, but declined to give details of its operations when asked to do so by a planning commission member.

"An effort is being made to move against private ownership of property. Possession and the right to use the land are being infringed on. This is not a land use issue," Markva said.

"You've gone off on somewhat of a tangent. Your arena might be the Supreme Court or the state supreme court," commission member Tybelle L. Fasteau told Markva. "This is an endless, ideological and perhaps a political argument that I don't want to get into."

The zoning change, which will be voted on by the Board of Supervisors April 23, forbids operation of money-making ventures on church property unless the church is in a commercial zone. Most churches in Fairfax are located in residential neighborhoods.

The debate focused on semantics and the use of the words "permitted" and "accessory uses." "This does not say prayer is a primary function and a pot-luck supper is an accessory function," Karen Harwood of the county attorney's office said. "Accessory means secular."

The changes permit churches to continue to allow nonprofit groups to continue to use church facilities. But Harwood said a commercial lobbying group would have to get special permits unless the church was in a commercial district. When asked if that interpretation meant that church meetings of anti-abortionists would be subject to regulation, Harwood said, "No, not as long as those were congregational gatherings."

Speaking on behalf of an alternative proposal pushed by 24 churches, Dennis Patrick of the Christian Assembly of Vienna, asked, "Where is the separation of church and state when we look at an ordinance such as this proposal tonight?" The alternative contains language which proponents say would protect the right of churches to use their properties and practice their faiths rather than grant permissions.

Not all churches in the area opposed the county's proposal. Speaking for the Mt. Vernon Presbyterian Church, Vin Harwell, praised the change. His church was one of those in the Route 1 corridor providing shelters for the homeless. The county zoning administrator has ruled that under existing zoning laws, such shelters are illegal.

The Fairfax Federation of Citizens Associations also supported the change.

"We see this as a land-use issue. The county has the right to regulate land use no matter who owns it. Homeowners have the right to be protected by the governing body of the county, not the governing body of any particular church," said another Fairfax resident.

Judith Larsen, of the Langley Quaker Meeting, also opposed the change. "Our objection is that this has the potential to go to the heart of our religious belief." Earlier, commission member Robert Sparks said an all-night vigil against apartheid in South Africa might not be appropriate for a church in a residential neighborhood.

Larsen said an all-night prayer vigil might very well be part of a Quaker's way of keeping faith.

She suggested changes address the issues in terms of land use such as trespassing, sewage control, building codes, traffic, and nuisances rather than specifying permitted uses.

Annunziata said it was her view that all activities for the "furtherance of the religion" would be allowed.

The commission voted to delete the word "permitted" for the amendment which defines use of the land, buildings and facilities associated with places of worship as those which are "sponsored and administered directly by the place of worship." Those uses include church services, choir practices, shelters for the homeless, religious study programs, vacation Bible schools and other programs "approved by the governing body of the church, chapel, temple, synagogue or other place of worship."

Frederick S. Lowery, director of the Community Ministry of Fairfax, said the 35 churches he represents support the proposal. "It protects the interests of the church by acknowledging the use by right for activities and functions directly sponsored by the church."