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Ethics and Religion Talk: How important is accessibility to a house of worship?

Jim E. asks, Most church buildings are older with lots of stairs. What ethical obligation does a church or house of worship have to be accessible to all visitors? At what cost?

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at More recent columns can be found on by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“There are many houses of worship that have great historical value that would require significant retrofitting. One also has to take into account the maintaining of the building’s structural integrity. I do not feel equipped to sit in judgment of those who have the fiduciary responsibility of any other institution than mine. That said, I do admire those churches, temples, etc. who do make every effort to welcome those of most every age and level of ability. At West Michigan Hindu Temple, we are entirely accessible.”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Adjutant Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“At least in part, the source of this issue is found in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed in 1990. You may learn about this act at:

“The basis of this act is to prevent discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Churches have the ethical obligation to minister to the people who are members of a given church, and this may be done in various ways.

“Regarding public accommodations in the Act, ‘the title sets minimum standards for accessibility for alterations and new construction’ (ibid.). I interpret this to mean that Churches are to provide ministerial access to disabled individuals. This may be done without the church doing significant and expensive alterations. This ministry could be done in people’s homes, an accessible area of the church property, or in this electronic age, via media. In doing so, the Churches are ensuring the disabled individuals are not excluded from receiving God’s mercy through the ministry of their pastors, simply because they lack access to a church building.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Beyond cost I believe there is a spiritual and theological obligation to be as welcoming and hospitable as possible to all who enter our doors. I am very grateful my congregation has been renting/sharing space with Congregation Ahavas Israel for many years. Ahavas is a fully accessible building and was originally designed with accessibility in mind. Unitarian Universalists hold accessibility and inclusivity as high priorities. Currently we are re-evaluating the wording in our hymnals to use more inclusive and less ableist language. There are many ways to make a space truly welcoming to all and there is equally as many barriers to overcome.

“In the United States the most common size of a community of worship is around 75 people. Most of the church buildings were built before the early part of last century when more people were attending worship services. Due to the sheer size of these buildings they are quite expensive to maintain and to heat. Accessibility needs are often the first items to be delayed to next year’s budget. While this is a common practice and done at times to keep the doors open it is also forgetting the first mission of any house of worship and that is to welcome the stranger regardless of need.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Presbyterians believe that in the gospel God offers the gift of salvation to ‘the whole lost race of man.’  This ‘free offer of the gospel’ puts all Presbyterian churches under a gospel-driven ethical obligation to make their houses of worship accessible to all visitors, no matter what cost. At the very least, these buildings should be accessible to all church members, regardless of infirmities or impairments.

“If the cost of making its building accessible is too high, a Presbyterian congregation should appeal to the higher courts of the church (presbytery or synod, particular or general) for assistance. It is part of the genius of Presbyterianism that the strong should support the weak. ‘As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them that are of the household of faith’ (Galatians 6:10).”

My response:

Buildings are only a part of being an accessible congregation. Are materials available for the visually impaired? Does the sound system accommodate the hearing impaired? Are people with mental impairments and mental illnesses welcome to fully participate in any and all activities that take place in the building? Are children, even those who make noise, welcome?

Installing ramps and elevators, widening doorways, installing powered doors, retrofitting sound systems, and providing interpretation services can be expensive. Building modifications are not always fully possible in historic older buildings. Welcoming all people is less expensive. It may cost nothing more than the effort of cultivating a culture which truly believes that every human being is created in the image of God and deserves a place in the congregation.


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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