Where to put that ugly cell tower? Try a church steeple.

Cellular companies are striking deals with churches, using bell towers to hide their unsightly equipment.

To enter the sanctuary at Christ on the Mountain church, worshipers pass through a lofty tower, adorned with crosses and a peaked tile roof. The structure looks like a bell tower. But it helps produce an altogether different sort of ring - that of a cellular phone.

When Sprint PCS offered to build a bell tower at the Roman Catholic church and pay an annual fee to use it for a cellular antenna, it didn't take much deliberation for church officials to agree - happily.

"It's actually improved the looks of the church," says Joe Downs, church business administrator, of the three-year-old tower. "We were basically a square box before. Now, we look more like a church."

And the lease payment of $6,000 a year look nice in the church books.

The practice of using a church's highest point as a conduit for secular messages may be a curious one, but it has become commonplace across the US. The fact that steeples camouflage unsightly equipment and are generally exempt from height restrictions has made them home to hundreds of cell towers nationwide.

While some question the appropriateness of churches - as tax-exempt entities - brokering in high-tech commerce, the trend shows no sign of slowing down.

The National Cathedral in Washington, for example, receives an estimated $100,000 a year from Motorola to lease its west tower for a 234-foot antenna. And Nextel Communications spent some $800,000 to construct a 60-foot tower with stained glass and crosses on three sides at Denver Seminary. It pays the seminary $1,700 a month on a 20-year lease.

It's hard to imagine a church declining such a deal, observers say. With a long list of things to do, and often a shortage of money, the cell towers can be a key asset.

"It's simply a business transaction," says Dean Hoge, a sociology professor at Catholic University in Washington. "The churches are glad to have the extra income because they have their own priorities."

Linking up with cellular providers represents a modern twist on fundraising, but churches frequently raise extra cash by renting out meeting rooms, extra parking spaces, and even banquet tables.

For cellular providers, the churches' willingness to help them serve the 30 percent of Americans who use cellphones is a welcome development.

"Structures like steeples are desirable because their height allows for coverage of a wider service area," says Bob Kelley, spokesman for Sprint PCS. "Oftentimes, the church steeple is one of the highest points in a community."

Historically, the ringing of church bells was a way to call the congregation. Placing cellular antennae in church towers fulfills a comparable function today, muses Mr. Kelley. "It accomplishes the same thing," he says. "It allows the community to communicate."

Yet in some cases, community opposition stymies proposals for cellular towers. Most commonly, neighbors cite concerns about exposure to electromagnetic fields from cellular antennas. Cell towers do emit low-level radiation, but scientists say there's no evidence that it adversely affects humans.

Churches that house cellular antennae, meanwhile, say any of their own concerns were resolved, or they would not have proceeded.

"We did a lot of research before agreeing to this," says Pat Muller, office manager at Shepherd of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Lakewood, Colo.

Two weeks ago, construction of a 50-foot Nextel cell tower was completed at the church, featuring large crosses, and decorative antique-finish bells. Although the church hasn't yet decided how to spend the $1,200 in monthly revenue, it will go into an escrow account, separate from the operating budget, says Ms. Muller.

"It's kind of a gift, and we're treating it that way," she says. "So there's some dreaming, there's some thought to the future, and that's exciting."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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