Georgia Department of Law, from the office of Michael J. Bowers, Attorney General

Official Opinion 95-20

April 24, 1995

District 40


Places of worship are not exempt from the requirements of O.C.G.A. § 30-3-1 et seq.

By your letter of February 22, 1995, you have sought my opinion regarding questions surrounding the City of Atlanta's decision to require a place of worship, presently being renovated, to comply with certain building code provisions.

Your inquiry indicates that the City is "imposing certain restrictions" upon the place of worship, which is "proceeding toward completion, addition and renovation." The only specific restriction you mention is the requirement of a "handicap ramp" or "chair lift" to serve the Altar Area "under guidelines or standards of the American National Standards Institute 1992 and 1986 Edition, Section A 117.1." Your letter states that the Altar Area is used only for liturgical purposes by priests and "other liturgical participants."

I will address only the question for which specific facts have been stated rather than the applicability of standards for construction generally. See O.C.G.A. § 8-2-1 et seq. However, it should be noted that the Establishment Clause does not exempt religious organizations from such secular governmental activity as fire inspections and building and zoning regulations. Tony and Susan Alamo Found. v. Secretary of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 305 (1985); see also Jimmy Swaggart Ministries v. Board of Equalization, 493 U.S. 378, 395 (1990); Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 614 (1971).

Because you reference the American National Standards Institute standards, the exemption of places of worship from the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. § 12187) is not relevant to this discussion. Rather, the question is controlled by O.C.G.A. § 30-3-1 et seq., which deal with access to and use of public facilities by physically handicapped and elderly persons. The purpose of those provisions is to "encourage and enable handicapped or elderly persons to participate fully in the social and economic life of Georgia" and to eliminate unnecessary physical barriers to that participation. O.C.G.A. § 30-3-1.

In furtherance of the above-stated goal, all public buildings receiving permits for construction or renovation after July 1, 1987, "shall comply with the American National Standards Institute specifications A117.1-1980 or A117.1-1986 for making buildings . . . accessible to and usable by physically handicapped people" with certain exceptions not relevant here. O.C.G.A. § 30-3-3.

"Public buildings" are defined as "all buildings, structures, . . . which are used by the public or in which handicapped or elderly persons may be employed, that are constructed or renovated by the use of private funds . . . ." O.C.G.A. § 30-3-2(5) (emphasis added).

No portion of the building to be used by persons who are, or may be, elderly or physically handicapped would be per se exempt from the requirements of the statute. See generally 1984 Op. Att'y Gen. 84-61.

Authority to determine that full compliance with the requirements of the statute is not practical is vested in the Safety Fire Commissioner, the Board of Regents or the local authority having jurisdiction over the building in question. O.C.G.A. § 30-3-3. It is the local authority which possesses that authority for the building in question. See O.C.G.A. §§ 25-2-12, 25-2-13(c), 30-3-5. That local authority "after taking all circumstances into consideration may determine that full compliance with any particular standard or specification set forth in this chapter is impractical, whereupon there shall be substantial compliance with the standards or specifications to the maximum extent practical . . . ." O.C.G.A. § 30-3-3.

The determination must be premised upon a sworn written statement from the person who owns or controls the building and must be evidenced by a timely written record setting forth the reasons full compliance is impractical. O.C.G.A. § 30-3-3.

Therefore, it is my official opinion that the provisions of O.C.G.A. § 30-3-1 et seq., dealing with design criteria to facilitate access to and use of public facilities by physically handicapped and elderly persons are applicable to places of worship. However, as with any public building, the appropriate authority may determine that full compliance is not practical and only substantial compliance to the maximum extent practical is required.

Prepared by:

Senior Assistant Attorney General