What Churches Need to Know About Local Zoning and Land Use Laws

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Federal law explicitly protects churches and other religious institutions and individuals from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use and zoning regulations. After learning that local land use and zoning regulations often placed burdens on religious congregations’ ability to practice their faith in violation of the U.S. Constitution, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc.

RLUIPA contains elements that protect churches and religious institutions from land use and zoning regulations that inhibit their ability to freely exercise their religions. This statute contains protections for a full range of religious assemblies, from churches, religious schools, cemeteries, and faith-based social services provided by religious organizations to individuals holding prayer meetings in their homes.

Furthermore, “religious exercise” refers to any exercise of religion, whether or not it is central to a system of religious belief. As a result, religious exercise includes actual worship services and may include other religious activities, such as Bible study groups, prayers meetings, and Sunday school classes.

RLUIPA Bars Some Local Government Land Use and Zoning Restrictions

RLUIPA recognizes that the ability of a church or religious institution to meet, operate, and worship is crucial. Under RLUIPA Section 2(a), land use or zoning restrictions that impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise are legally invalid unless the government can show that:

  • It has a “compelling interest” for imposing the restriction, and
  • The restriction is the “least restrictive” way for the government to further that interest.

RLUIPA Requires Governments to Treat Religious and Secular Assemblies and Institutions Equally

RLUIPA Section 2(b)(1) requirements local governments to treat religious assemblies the same as secular assemblies to implement zoning and land use regulations. In other words, if the government would grant an occupancy permit to a secular organization in a particular zone, then it also must grant an occupancy permit to a religious organization in the same zone.

RLUIPA Prohibits Governments from Discriminating Based on Religion

Under Section 2(b)(2) of RLUIPA, governments may not discriminate against any assembly or institution based on religion. In other words, a government entity may not deny a building permit for an Islamic mosque when they have met all other requirements simply because the worshipers are Muslim.

RLUIPA Prevents Governments from Totally or Unreasonably Excluding Houses of Worship

RLUIPA Sections 2(b)(3)(A) and (B) prohibit local governments from imposing land-use regulations that totally exclude or unreasonably limit religious assemblies from a specific jurisdiction. For instance, a local government may not pass an ordinance stating that neither individuals nor groups can build additional churches within city limits.

Enforcing RLUIPA Violations

If a government entity has violated the RLUIPA rights of an individual or entity, you can bring a private cause of action against the government entity to seek monetary damages. You also can file a complaint about RLUIPA violations with the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division. That agency can seek court orders to remedy the violations but cannot seek monetary damages on your behalf.

Contact Us Today for Legal Assistance Church Law Center gears its practice to legal matters that affect nonprofit organizations, churches, and other religious organizations. This focus allows us to concentrate our efforts on keeping abreast of the ever-changing laws and policies as they develop over time. We are here to represent your interests throughout every stage of your legal matter. Call us today at (949) 245-3177 or visit us online and see what we can do for you.

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