Even the plumbing code answers to a higher authority.

Sometimes it appears that the plumbing code conflicts with religious beliefs or practices. There is a standing joke that there is no conflict, God always wins. In many ways, that is true.

Contrary to what a plumbing code may require, religious freedom is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The First Amendment reads, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... "

That, of course, applies to all religions. Hence, a plumbing code cannot dictate that a religious building have the plumbing installed contrary to the teachings and beliefs of that particular religion. It is disheartening to me when an inspector tries to enforce a code that prevents the free exercise of a religion.

Many religions have beliefs that may appear strange or in possible violation of the plumbing code requirements. The largest religion in the United States, the Roman Catholic faith, believes that holy water must be returned to the earth if it is discarded. In other words, holy water cannot be discharged down a drain that connects to the sanitary sewer.

Non-Catholics often ask what makes holy water so special. Very simply, holy water is normal water that is blessed by the priest. Thus, it looks and tastes the same. But once blessed, it has a special place within the faith.

If you go to the sacristy of a typical Catholic church, you will find that there is normally either two sinks or a double-bowl sink. One sink connects to the sanitary sewer, the other has a drain that discharges to the ground. In my local parish, there is a big sign on the sink connected to the sanitary sewer that states holy water is not to be poured into this sink.

While this may seem minor, it is not to the Catholic faith. Most plumbing inspectors in the country have come to understand that the sink for discharging holy water does not have to connect to the sanitary sewer, even though the plumbing code would require such a connection.

For this installation, religious freedom -- protected by the U.S. Constitution -- would supercede the plumbing code. The legal system starts from the top and works its way down. A plumbing code is a state or local jurisdiction law. At the top of the heap in the legal system is the U.S. Constitution. So a state or local plumbing code cannot violate the constitution.

Who’s Right? Who’s Wrong?

A different type of conflict has occasionally occurred with the Islamic faith. When mosques are constructed, they prefer to install squat toilets. If you are unfamiliar with this type of fixture, the simplest explanation is that it looks like a hole in the ground with two markings as to where to place your feet. You squat over the opening to use the toilet. After each use, the human waste is flushed down the drain like a standard water closet.

The problem is that squat toilets are not regulated by the water closet standard. However, one could make the case that a squat toilet could be evaluated as an alternative design under the standard. Even with that in place, these toilets do not go through the testing requirements for a standard 1.6-gpf water closet.

It is interesting to note that a squat toilet allows the body to be in the best position to perform the elimination process. The position greatly reduces the possibility of constipation since it allows the sphincter to completely open when defecating.

A plumbing inspector cannot prohibit these fixtures from being installed in a mosque. The Islamic religion is entitled to install these fixtures for use by their congregation. Furthermore, squat toilets can be installed rather than standard water closets.

The federal government is so aware of religious freedoms that they often go out of their way to make sure that new laws do not infringe on those rights. If you read the Americans with Disabilities Act, religious institutions (and buildings) are exempt from the requirements. A church, mosque, synagogue or other religious building is not required to be retrofitted to conform to the accessibility requirements.

When all public buildings were having their toilet rooms retrofitted to provide accessible plumbing fixtures, religious buildings were exempt. Many religious buildings, however, were retrofitted as a service to the congregation. But, the federal law did not mandate this change.

It is interesting to note that state and local codes have gotten around this ADA provision by requiring all new churches to be accessible. Thus, there is no conflict with ADA since the building code is exceeding ADA requirements.

Technically, if an existing religious building is renovated, the plumbing fixtures do not have to be upgraded to the handicapped accessibility requirements. The plumbing can be retrofitted with similar fixtures reinstalled. Again, realize that many religious buildings choose to upgrade to the accessibility requirements on their own. That is perfectly acceptable. But, an inspector cannot demand it. Remember, they are specifically exempt in the federal ADA.

Too Far

I was in a recently renovated church that had the altar remodeled. The local inspector required the pulpit to be accessible. So, behind the pulpit was a wheelchair lift. Besides looking stupid, it destroyed the architectural beauty of the altar. Not surprisingly, none of the preachers were physically challenged. But, I was informed that the local inspector wanted the church to be prepared if and when that may occur.

Being an ardent supporter of the accessibility requirements, here is an example where the local code enforcement went too far. It would seem reasonable that if a physically challenged preacher came to the church, they would accommodate the individual. Just watch how the Pope is moved from the “Popemobile” to the altar on his magic carpet.

With various religions, I am sure there are other conflicts. If you ever encounter a dispute between the plumbing or building code and the practice of a religious faith, just remember, that the religious faith has the right to vary from the code. If this in not understood by the local inspector, it is worth the effort to seek a higher authority.