Land use issues involving religious institutions can often arise when a municipality regulates its planning and zoning. This can be especially true in a downtown district, where limited space is available for competing concerns such as business operations and parking.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects the free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from establishing an official religion. In addition, under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law enacted in 2000 known as RLUIPA, cities and towns face specific restrictions on their ability to regulate land use for religious purposes.
The law prohibits governments from imposing a land-use regulation that would create “a substantial burden” on religious activity. The law allows an exception to this restriction in cases where the government demonstrates that the regulation serves a “compelling governmental interest,” and that the regulation is the least restrictive way of achieving that end.
RLUIPA further disallows land-use regulations that would:
- place religious institutions on unequal terms with other institutions,
- discriminates based on religion or religious denomination,
- completely exclude religious assemblies from a jurisdiction, or
- unreasonably limit religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.
In the two decades since the passage of RLUIPA, the U.S. Department of Justice has remained involved in its enforcement. The U.S. DOJ reported in September 2020 that it had opened a total of 485 RLUIPA land-use investigations of local and state governments, and filed 25 RLUIPA land-use lawsuits.
Here are some examples of RLUIPA land-use cases:
- United States v. City of Waukegan: Waukegan, Illinois excluded places of worship in districts that allowed clubs, lodges, meeting halls and theaters, and notified small churches in these districts that they violated the regulations. The DOJ sued, leading to a consent decree requiring the city to treat religious institutions equally with other places of assembly.
- Albanian Associated Fund v. Township of Wayne: After an application to build a mosque had remained active for three years, the Township of Wayne, New Jersey took the property in question by eminent domain. The DOJ filed a statement of interest indicating that the township’s actions were a deliberate effort to keep the mosque from being built, and the court ruled that using eminent domain to overcome zoning regulations could be a RLUIPA violation.
- United States v. City of Hollywood: The DOJ sued the City of Hollywood, Florida, claiming that it had denied a permit to a synagogue in a residential neighborhood — an area where permits for other religious uses had been approved — because of discrimination against Orthodox Jews. This led to a consent decree that allowed the synagogue to remain at its location and expand.
- Douglas County, Georgia: When a church attempted to build a new sanctuary at its existing property of 2.8 acres, the county imposed a 3-acre minimum for church developments, but not for nonreligious assemblies. After the DOJ opened an investigation, the county changed its code to treat churches and other assemblies equally.