Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Stafford, Texas, has 51 churches - one for every 351 inhabitants. And they're crippling the place

Please, no more churches, we've got too many already." If ever there was a sentiment I thought I'd never hear in the land of God, the faithful and George W Bush, that was it. But I was wrong.

Last week, Leonard Scarcella, the mayor of Stafford, Texas, expressed his exasperation at the seemingly unstoppable march of religion into his modest township in suburban Houston. "Our city," he told the Los Angeles Times, "has an excessive number of churches." And it's hard to argue.

Stafford's population, according to the most recent census, is 17,935. Yet crammed into its seven square miles of territory are no fewer than 51 churches and other religious institutions - one for every 351 inhabitants. They represent Buddhism, Islam, not to mention every brand of Christianity you can imagine (and many more you can't). One quarter-mile stretch alone boasts 17 churches. Everywhere you turn, the Almighty beckons.

Now it is not that Stafford, deep in the heart of the Bible Belt, is losing its faith. The town, incidentally, is next door to the delightfully named city of Sugar Land, represented in Washington by that redoubtable born-again Christian Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House until his unfortunate indictment on criminal charges earlier this year. But Stafford's apostasy has nothing to do with the downfall of the politician known as "The Hammer". The churches, quite simply, are killing the place financially.

The trouble, you see, is that all these churches are gobbling up land that might otherwise be filled by businesses, shops and ordinary residential areas that provide taxes. Making matters worse, Stafford proudly claims to be the largest town in Texas that doesn't have a property tax, making it even more dependent on business and sales taxes generated by the natural human pursuit of the greenback.

Of itself, a high concentration of churches in an American city is not unusual. This is a ferociously religious country. Some 90 per cent of people believe in God, and 60 per cent of the 300 million-strong population claim to go to church at least once a month. That means a lot of churches - even in a place like Washington DC, far from the traditional Bible Belt.

Most days, I drive to work down 16th Street, which leads ultimately to the White House. Along a two-mile stretch stand no fewer than two dozen churches (not to mention a couple of Freemasons' temples), offering a mix to match that of Stafford.

But Washington is a large city. Why Stafford is such a magnet is a mystery - at least to a layman. Cecil Willis, a city councillor, says he asked the six most recent applicants why they wanted to come. "Every one of them said they prayed about it, and God said to come here," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I can't compete with that."

If the churches were catering to natives of Stafford, that would be one thing. But most worshippers seem to come from elsewhere. The result is a community buckling under ecclesiastical sprawl. The churches, non-political and non-profit, are, of course, tax-exempt. They thus provide no revenue to the municipality in which they have settled, but gobble up land that might be used by others who could. As of now, only 300 acres are left in Stafford for commercial development. That is, if the city can keep the churches at bay.

Think of churches in Britain, and you think of ancient buildings of honeyed stone, of flint, or old brick, mostly locked and empty, as quiet as the small graveyards that surround them. Not so their counterparts in modern American cities. These are sprawling modern structures, busy seven days a week. They tend to have monster parking lots to accommodate the motorised faithful who pack the places on Sundays. They have permanently manned offices and offer an array of services, day care and the rest - as they have to. Religion in America may be tax-exempt, but it's as competitive a business as any. If congregation members are not satisfied with what's on offer, they will go elsewhere (after all, there's no lack of alternatives). And they'll take their regular donations and charitable contributions with them.

All of which is fine, of course - except if you're Stafford. What is the city to do? It can't simply turn them away. This is America, after all, where freedom of religion includes the freedom to set up churches where you please. Leave aside the moral aspect of the problem and future headlines along the lines of "The Town that Hates God". If the council banned churches and let in businesses, a cascade of lawsuits would follow.

Right now, lawyers are looking for a legal means of keeping them out. If not, then Stafford may have to do the unthinkable and introduce a property tax. But then again, aren't those churches tax-exempt?